Q&A: Jay Collier – Wildlife photographer and photo industry stalwart
Tell us about your career in the photo industry - I think you may have rubbed shoulders with more industry people than anyone in Australia!
I first started working in a Kodak lab in Sydney when I was 16 in the mid 90's which involved camera sales, developing film and prints for the public as well as the local St George Sutherland Shire Leader newspaper – where I went on to do work experience in year 10.
I left Kodak and started working for Gunz, which was the Australian distributor at the time for a long list of products including Olympus, Metz, Hoya and many others. Gunz closed down in the late 90's and I started working directly for Olympus Australia after they established a direct office for the first time. I worked in tech support and internal sales and quickly realised that office admin and wearing business attire was not my thing so started searching for ways to shoot more.
I started shooting live music in 1997 and had my first break a year later shooting The Vans Warped Tour in Sydney. This kick started my music photography career which went on until around 2013 having shot for magazines and publication all across Australia and overseas as well as directly for some of the biggest bands of the time. Paid work in the music industry dried up due to a new era of social media with kids shooting for free in order to get an all access pass, so i decided to bow out rather than add to the problem of why you couldn't make a living shooting live music.
Through the music scene I was lucky enough to meet the one and only Bob King (music photography royalty) and his son Andrew King who worked at Maxwells Optical Industries (Nikon distributor at the time). Through them I ended up as manager of Nikon Professional Services (NPS) from 2000 to 2006. NPS gave me many opportunities as I was in direct contact with many pro photographers working for major newspapers and agencies – so ended up finding some additional work shooting for both News Ltd and Fairfax publications. This included live music again and shooting the NRL.
In 2004 I took my first trip to Africa and was fortunate enough to use all the expensive Nikon super teles and pro bodies.
In 2006 after years of working alongside Canon Professional Services (CPS) workers, I was given the chance to take over CPS management until 2014. After moving to Melbourne, I headed up the team for Canon Collective in Victoria until 2020.
My role at Canon Collective (CC) was to create, manage and run 6 photographic workshops/ experiences per week, as well as major events and tours nationally and internationally (including Africa) - but CC was sadly discontinued in August 2020.
Finding myself unemployed when Covid hit wasn't ideal, but I got together with other ex-Canon Collective managers Scott Stramyk (Sydney) and Greg Sullavan (Brisbane) to start our own company www.thephotographyworkshopco.com
You worked closely with the repair side of things while working with CPS. You must have some interesting stories of photographers mishaps with their gear.
There are too many to count but this one comes to mind. Back in the mid 2000's a customer came into CPS to borrow a 1DS Mark III which was Canon's flagship full frame DSLR worth around $10k at the time, as well as the EF 400mm f2.8 II and 1.4x converter valued at over $14k. The photographer had both the camera and lens brand new out of the box the night before shooting the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. He had the camera and lens attached to a monopod and balanced it against a railing on a ship while shooting with his second camera and wide-angle lens when a wave caused him to lose his balance, letting go of the monopod and watched the entire camera and lens go overboard in Sydney Harbour where it remains to this day. CPS were able to help him out with loan gear until he could get replacements.
You have hosted guests at many of Africa’s most renown lodges in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda and Madagascar. What keeps you going back to that continent?
Put simply, Africa is addictive, forever changing and no day is ever the same even after going back for 19 years. The wildlife, the people and the culture is what draws me back again and again. It's a joy to see my guests experience Africa for the first time and we have many repeat customers who have been joining us regularly for a long time.
Easily my favourite location on Earth is at a lodge called Mashatu in Botswana where I work directly with the owners of a series of custom safari vehicles and underground hides made specifically for photographers. I'm back at Mashatu this November hosting guests and also on my August 2024 tour which can be found on my website.
Every country offers a completely contrasting experience and photographic opportunity with Southern African and Botswana being amongst the best for wildlife. Then you also have Namibia which is unrivalled for variety in one location offering up world class landscape, wildlife and true nomadic tribes people and intact cultures that are unchanged.
As you move up into Zambia and Zimbabwe you reach the mighty Zambezi and Victoria Falls and the plains open up in vast rivers, flood plains as well as harsh baron wastelands. If you head to central and east to Uganda and Rwanda you find rain forests and gorillas. Kenya and Tanzania also have the great plains which holds the largest migration of wildlife on earth.
Lastly you have Madagascar which is unlike anywhere else on mainland Africa – with approximately 98% of all plants and wildlife only found there. Madagascar is very long but narrow with a large mountain ridge along it's centre with tropical monsoon rainforest one side and harsh dry deserts the other. It is one of the poorest countries, yet is home to some of the friendliest people I've met in all of Africa. Madagascar is very much behind the times with infrastructure and logistics when compared to tourism in other African countries, so you really cant take chances or cut corners here. I personally used the same guide and company who hosted the BBC film crew with David Attenborough when they filmed the series there and hope to return again very soon. I never see a day where I tick Africa off my list as being done.
What is your favourite animal to photograph?
I can't narrow it down to only one animal as all of my favourites have different reasons. For sheer non-stop action and difficulty I'd say African wild dogs on a hunt wins hands down, as they are fast, run in packs and don't stop. You are often driving at 50-60km to keep up with them and bumping around in the process.
If you are lucky to get ahead of them for a few seconds you can shoot them coming towards you or pan as they run past the car, but as most hunts happen at first or last light, keeping shutter speeds suitable without shooting at 20,000 ISO, your only choice is to shoot slow motion pans between 1/10th to 1/50th of a second and create a dramatic panning shot. The key is you have to pan exactly in time and while the feet are off the ground and head is stable in order to get the head and eye sharp. If you shoot too early or late, the head bobs up and down causing motion blur no matter how well you pan left or right, its the up and down motion that ruins your shot when shooting at such slow shutter speeds.
But my all time favourite images after 19 years and over 1 million images taken in Africa would have to be my elephant image taken at Mashatu in 2013 from the underground hide. The hide is a 20 foot shipping container that is buried next to a watering hole on one of the most busy elephant migration paths on the private reserve in Mashatu. The hide was strategically placed here as it is the last remaining water on the property for many months during the dry season when the rivers run bone dry, so elephants pass the watering hole every morning and afternoon. This morning saw a herd of around 50 elephants to surround the watering hole with the young calf suckling from its mother only a arms length away from my lens shot at 16mm on a full frame camera.
Any interesting stories from Africa?
My very first trip to Africa in 2004, I went to Uganda in Bwindi National Park to see the wild mountain Gorillas. This is the story of why I have little to no photos of wild gorillas.
After a long 4.5 hour walk up hill, we started our walk down into the valley where the trackers (who left hours ahead of us) had located a family of gorillas. How it works is that once you have located the gorillas and got into position, you have only one hour that you can spend with them and there are only 6 people per gorillas group per day allowed in the park (there was approx 3 family groups open to tourists and others only accessible to researchers). This morning we had a family group made up of a handful of infants between 1-2 years, 4-5 sub adults, 3 adult females, 2 subadult males and of course the mighty silverback.
The Gorillas were on the move this morning and not resting or stopping to feed which made it very hard to keep up as it's easy to get tangled up in thick vines and I quickly made the choice to not stress about getting photos and to take in the experience of being with them in the wild until a clearing was available.
Now, I mentioned the vines! They got thicker and thicker as we followed the gorillas and we could see where trackers had previously cut a path with machetes. The vines had grown over the top of the dead vines creating what was almost like a tunnel.
In order to walk through the 20 meter twisty tunnel of vines, you would need to be crouched down into a squat. As we slowly shuffled behind the silverback who was merely meters in front of us, he would stop every few meters and turn to face us. The Ranger in front of me (armed with an AK-47) ordered me to not make eye contact as this would be seen a challenge to the silverback.
As we neared the end of the tunnel, suddenly the silverback stopped at the opening and looked back towards us then began smashing his fists on the vines and everything around us started to shake. He burst into the clearing to our relief. Bizarrely, through the vines we saw a red headed Scottish fellow tourist jumping and screaming like he was on fire. We laughed at this ridiculous sight, but then to our horror we realised he was being chased by wasps!
All the bashing of the vines had busted open a large wasp nest and we were quickly engulfed in an angry swarm. Luckily I had thick long pants and boots, however only a thin shirt, exposed arms, neck and face. Everyone ran in every direction covered in clouds of wasps. I didn't know at this stage if the wasps were dangerously venomous or harmless and started yelling out to ask if they were. Every type of pain from the stings would burn and ache and felt like I was having hundreds of matches put out on my skin at once while being stabbed with hot needles.
One ranger placed down his AK47 and took off his jacket and started trying to squash as many wasps as he could, as brushing them away just made them more angry and they would come right back and sting me again. This went on for around 10 mins as the swarm followed us as we ran away from the nest and the opposite direction to the gorillas who were all sitting back watching with amusement how it all unfolded. Did the silverback do this on purpose?
After returning to camp and having a rough night drowning our sorrows drinking Banana Gin (rocket fuel) called waragi, the next morning we went into the hills to see a local witch doctor as the closest hospital was a days drive away and we had to trust the local bush medicine. This guy wasn't dressed up for the tourists, he was the real deal and we were told that tourists are never invited up to this village but as we had so many stings, the rangers suggested seeing "the medicine man". He spoke no English and a local translator told me to take the ball of green goop that he rolled up into a leaf and wipe it onto the stings twice a day after showering. I'm happy to report it worked and they didn't itch, or get inflamed or get infected and by the following day the pain and discomfort had stopped.
Antarctica looks fairly bleak – but no doubt it would be a fascinating place to visit.
February this year was my first time there via a 2-hour flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island rather than a 2 day ocean crossing through the roughest seas on earth – The Drake Passage. The ship I use for my tours has a major advantage in that it only holds 67 total passengers and has 14 guides – which means the highest guide to guest ratio in the industry with 1 guide for every 5 guests. Some people don't realise that in Antarctica, no more than 100 people can be on land at any given location at once, which means the larger ships with 100-300 guests must schedule their shore activities and you spend most of the time waiting on board.
Nothing prepares you for Antarctica. You have preconceived ideas of what it might be like, yet when you arrive it's totally different and beyond all expectations. Antarctica is a nonstop assault on your senses and every second that is spent on shore, in zodiacs or on the ship – you are seeing awe inspiring scenery that changes every minute. I found myself one night after dinner at the front of the ship for 6 hours mesmerised by icebergs. As the sun didn't set until approximately 11pm, it means you have an extended 'golden and blue hour' that lasts literally for hours. I couldn't walk away from the view and had to see what the next iceberg looked like, and the next and the next until the sun set and it was dark, I was freezing but i didn't care.
What are some of your favourite places in Australia to photograph?
I tend to favour different things photographically at home as most of Australia's wildlife is vastly nocturnal and for many years I simply ignored it and kept my priority on African wildlife each year.
Over the last 7 years I started up co-hosted tours to Kakadu and partnered exclusively with multi-award winning tour company NT Bird Specialists, joining forces with arguably the most experienced and respected birds and wildlife guide in NT, Luke Paterson. These tours started back when I worked for Canon and we have continued to run them through Kakadu. We have access to private land and stay in bush camps in Kakadu owned by local traditional owners away from the crowds.
Having your own piece of Kakadu each day with wildlife, traditional rock art galleries that are not accessible to the public and the ability to stay out after sunset is a major advantage as most locations in Kakadu you must be out of the park and gates by sunset. We also have private use of smaller boats instead of the large 60+ tourist cruises that are limited with their interaction with the shoreline and surrounds.
Secondly is Lake Eyre. I pioneered the first dedicated photography tour company for Lake Eyre aerial photography www.lakeeyrefromtheair.com while I was working at Canon and have run multiple trips since (taking my last group this season up this August).
The focus on these tours is abstract aerial landscape photography from open door aircraft over what has to be the most unique landscape photo location in Australia, if not on earth. Lake Eyre provides a never-ending array of colours, shapes and patterns which can change daily as the water if pushed around by wind. You can fly over the same section of land in the afternoon to where you were that same morning and see completely different conditions. For this reason. I take guests back year after year with many of my guests placing in photography awards here in Australia and overseas.
What are some of the things you teach in your workshops?
Over my career I've been very lucky to work with and support many top photographers – but most importantly I've also learned from each and every one them. This has given me a very unique view into every aspect of photography there is from shooting news and sport, wildlife, studio, perfecting lighting, portrait, wedding, wildlife, documentary, commercial, macro, products, lifestyle, landscape and video.
So I have numerous workshops that I host such as: birds of prey, African wildlife, aerial photography, landscape, travel and studio lighting.
You probably have access to some serious telephoto lenses and equipment. What sort of gear have you used?
I've owned A LOT of gear in my time! Starting on Nikon gear I managed to own a full line up of lenses from the 8-15mm fish eye, the 3 amigos (16-35, 24-70, 70-200 f2.8) 80-400mm, 300, 400mm f2.8, 500mm f5 and 600mm f4 with bodies being the F90X and F5 film cameras and up to the D2H by the time I left Nikon in 2006 to work at Canon.
I sold off all my Nikon gear in a week after starting at Canon and have since upgraded to be 100% mirrorless using the EOS R3 as my main wildlife camera and R5 for commercial, landscape and studio work. Im currently using the RF 600mm f4, RF 24-105, RF 15-35 and other EF lenses including the 24mm f1.4L, 35mm f1.4L and a host of others.
Lighting wise I'm currently using Godox for all my location and studio work with two AD600 Pro and four AD300pro strobes – with a massive range of stands and softboxes.
I'm lucky to be endorsed by a range of gear as an Australian ambassador with Maxxum using Haida filters, Benro tripods, Tenda bags and cases, Shimoda bags, Samyang lenses, Feiyutech stabilized gimbals and more. I also have a strong association with other brands including Magmods and Laowa and Benq monitors to round out my equipment needs.
You can see more of Jay's personal work here.