A hunting trip turned bad made Michael Ellem pick up a camera instead of a gun to shoot wildlife. Now 4X4 photography is his passion. Who is Michael Ellem?
Michael is a man who has been making his full-time living photographing the 4X4 world since 1999. His editorial work has been published in all the leading 4X4 magazines and he also does a heap of 4X4 commercial work, particularly for ARB. Michael was born in 1965 and grew up in Hornsby Heights, on Sydney’s northern edge. He spent much of his youth hanging out on the northern beaches of Sydney and honed his photographic skills shooting water sports. He now operates his business, Offroad Images, out of Menai on Sydney’s southern edge. He has a wife and three kids who somehow tolerate his photographic obsession.
What does he do? Michael proudly calls himself a photographer, though producing beautiful video for his commercial clients takes up a lot of his time these days. “It’s 50-50 video/stills now. I shoot panoramics, I shoot time-lapses, I shoot video, I shoot slow-mo; I shoot all this stuff … because the media requires it now. Companies aren’t just putting their products into print. They use Facebook and YouTube on a day-to-day basis. To circulate your product, if you are just going to concentrate on print, you are going to miss a whole lot of ground.”
How far does he go to get the shot he wants? Just to set up properly for a sand dune sunrise shot, Michael likes to be on location at least two hours before dawn. He will similarly spend hours using time-lapse technology to capture the night sky moving behind a vehicle, or set up a wire with a radio-controlled camera attached to capture a vehicle moving through grass. To capture the images of working shock absorbers that he wanted, Michael once attached a camera to a radio-controlled car that could do 120km/h so it could follow a 4X4 across rugged terrain. “I don’t like to do anything standard. I try to create something that’s new, something where people say, ‘Wow, how cool is that?’.” Michael is particularly proud of a video he made for ARB, “A Bullbar is Born,” in which the camera was never held in his hand, it was always attached to a piece of machinery or the metal being worked on. The next big thing he is excited by is using drones.
How did he get into photography? It all started with a hunting trip to his uncle’s farm at Bathurst, NSW. “Dad wanted all the boys to go out there and shoot stuff. I didn’t like it. I had a bit of a bad kill, and dad always taught us that we had to look after what we had done. I had this kangaroo that was a bit of a mess and had to deal with it – had to follow it over a bunch of hills to find where it ended up and … [finish it off]. At the age of 15 it was a big life-changing factor for me. This was not for me, I figured, so the next time we went out to my uncle’s farm I said to my dad: “Can I take a camera instead?” So all my brothers went one way and I went the other way, and I took a camera and they took a gun and I took photos of the animals.”
What came next? Photographing water sports. “I got involved in photographing sailboarding, wave jumping and surfing. I’d go out in the waves and pack a camera into an underwater housing with 36 shots … and you would push your way out into the waves and take 36 shots and then you would have to come back in and, while it’s blowing a gale, try to put another roll of film in that camera. So you would pull it all apart, clean all the seals, put another roll of film in there and back out you go to take some more shots. I photographed the sailboarding world speed record being broken down near Wilsons Promontory [in Victoria] and I thought that was going to be the biggest thing I would ever do in photography.” Michael, then in his early twenties, was shooting from the shore and from out on the water, but was also already displaying the innovation that has set him apart from other photographers. He rigged up a radio-controlled camera on a sailboard mast using aluminium fixtures specially made by an engineer so he could get even more intimate shots.
Who does he admire? The American Ansel Adams (1902-1984), arguably the world’s most renowned nature photographer. “He’s an amazing character. What he did with old film technology; I don’t think you can replicate that nowadays.” Ansel Adams’ words of wisdom “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.” “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”
First 4×4? A blue and white Toyota HiLux SR5 with a 2.0 litre engine. “It was bloody awesome. It had these massive tyres and a massive lift on it, which is only small now by comparison. I thought this thing was invincible; it could go anywhere. I had it all resprayed and had all the interior decked out so there were spots for your wetsuits and spots for the camera gear and spots for everything in the back. If you are working from a vehicle, everything has to be exactly where you need it.”
Who has been a major influence on his career? Four-wheel drive media figure Pat Callinan. “I was always using a 4X4 to get to the locations that we were shooting on the beach. Back in those days you could drive nearly anywhere, so to get out to a location where you would be photographing these guys on their boards, you could drive out onto the beach. Pat Callinan saw the photos I was doing of the 4X4s that we were using … and he said: ‘Why are you doing [water sports photography]? You should be shooting [4X4s].’ I went 100 miles an hour forward from there.”
What is he driving now? A current model Mazda BT50 dual-cab ute. Michael loves what it offers but not the way it looked at the dealer. “I didn’t like the idea of buying a BT50 initially because it’s got this massive smile on its front. I always preferred the look of the Ford Ranger, but the features that are involved in the BT50 – it’s better. I took it straight to ARB and said, ‘I want to get rid of the smile – slap it around a bit if you have to – I have to get rid of that’. So we went with the Sahara [bull bar] … and a couple of decent-sized lights. Along with the winch controller, those things mean you can’t see the smile anymore. That had to go. The look is important to me. If I’m going to be photographing the thing it’s got to look right.” Michael also loves the way ARB fitted out his car to make the perfect vehicle for a professional photographer. There’s drawers and compartments to keep every bit of equipment handy and safe. There’s also brilliant inside and outside lighting so he can make sure he hasn’t left an expensive bit of camera gear on a nearby rock when packing up at night.
What’s in his camera bag? When Michael’s Mazda takes off for a job, there is usually well over $100,000 worth of photographic gear on board. “Pretty much the best body that’s out I’ll have, and I’ll have a number of them. At the moment the Canon 1D X is the best that Canon make – a really tough body which can handle the elements. The 1D X for me is definitely the best camera around.”
He usually has two bodies on every job, sometimes three. “The type of lenses I use are all professional lenses. I love my fixed lenses. The 14mm is just a beautiful lens. An 85mm is another I really like. The 70-200mm lens is one that gets used a lot. The 24-70 2.8 is an important lens. For all the wildlife stuff I shoot it’s a 400mm 2.8. It’s a big lens and it’s heavy but it’s really fast. “We take a car into the middle of nowhere, we detail the car, we put studio lighting out – it might be 10 grand worth of lighting. We use one sort of lighting for stills and another sort of lighting for video work. For panoramics we use a thing called a GigaPan. We also use a rail.” Michael uses the same camera gear to shoot video. “The problem with some of the video cameras like the Sonys … is they don’t give you that photographic look that I like.”
Favourite gear? His 14mm lens and his Bialetti coffee machine. Both accompany him on every trip. Michael is as passionate about a good cup of coffee as he is about a good photograph. “The 14mm – I tend to overuse it. It’s beautiful, what it produces. It’s heavy, there’s a lot of glass in there and everything is so accurate in the peripheral vision areas [of a panoramic shot]. You are seeing more than what your eyes see.”
Can you learn from this bloke? As well as writing about photography for the quarterly ARB magazine, Michael runs photographic workshops in stunning outback locations like Eldee Station near Broken Hill. “[The workshops] have been really rewarding. For me the most rewarding component is to see the big smiles and their eyes light up when someone just gets it. The first questions you ask when you get together is: ‘Do you understand aperture?’ If I can get their head around aperture then I can take them so much further with their photography.”
Best photographic tip? “Don’t worry about getting the most expensive gear. Get a camera that’s got a couple of lenses. A basic Canon or Nikon twin lense kit will do. Buy a set-up which is say, $1000, and get out there and start practicing.”
Photographic philosophy? Michael loves the documentary aspect of photography – that each shot catches a moment in time that will never be repeated. He is engaged in a constant game of self-improvement. “I always try to take an image that’s better than the last one I took. I don’t think there are too many people more excited than me out on a photo shoot. I really want people to create their own style. People who don’t follow their own style I don’t think will succeed. Be true to yourself. People should never underestimate what they can achieve in photography.”
Favourite place to photograph? The Simpson Desert. “I keep getting drawn back to this particular sand dune. You create an image of something and then the next time you go back you want to try and make it better. There’s this one particular spot 400 metres south of the location where you cross Big Red, and I will go there two hours before sunrise and everything will be set up and I will just watch the light change and the whole landscape start to build with light and it’s amazing. I love it.”