Shorebreak wave photographer, Clark Little, captures the beauty of a wave moments before it crashes on Oahu’s North Shore. It is a unique perspective of ocean beauty that has managed to captivate millions of fans worldwide. If you haven’t seen his work already, Clark’s photography is displayed all over the world whether it be in a gallery, Nikon’s TV Commercials and billboards or someone’s home, and for good reason; he has made an art of capturing the different colors and formations that Hawaii’s powerful waves create right before breaking. When we first discovered his work we were in awe.
We were able to sit with Clark Little in order to get a better understanding of what motivates him to get up in the morning, grab his camera and run into the waves that at times can be life threatening. Here is what he had to say:
Did your experience as a surfer prompt your desire to photograph shorebreak waves?
Spending most of my free time since I was a child in the ocean, and mainly in the waves, did help my desire to photograph waves. The ocean is a second home for me. It is where I always spent my time.
The shorebreak wave photography idea never entered my mind until one day my wife brought home a photograph of a big Waimea Bay shorebreak wave. It was taken from shore with a long lens. She wanted to put it up on our bedroom wall. But I looked at it and said “no way. I think I could get an even better shot” I made her take it back to the gallery and return it.
Soon after I bought a cheap waterhousing for my cheap point and shoot camera and went out to the beach to try and get some wave pictures. I wanted to get a picture that was up close and in the danger zone.
After swimming around with my camera for a bit, I realized how fun it was to be in the water. When I went home and looked at the pictures I got, I was surprised that they were pretty good. I saw the potential and then I was hooked.
Can you describe the experience of shooting waves?
The sun is out, mist is in the air and I am surrounded by water. Usually there is white sand under the water and barely anyone on the beach. I am alone. Hyper aware since big waves could catch you in the wrong place at any moment. Adrenaline is pumping. Body is getting lots of exercise from constantly swimming and holding the camera up for hours on end.
I see a big wave come on the horizon. Start swimming to get into the right place. As it approaches, swimming around and guessing where the tube will form perfectly. As it gets closer it rises out of the ocean. At this point, swimming much faster to go in, or out or to the side. Making adjustments as the wave hits the sand bar and jacks up and out of the water, thrusting a tube forward. I am moving around putting myself into the most critical section I can get into in these last available seconds. The wave pitches over and encloses me in the tube. I keep pushing the shutter. 3..5…6..9 shots. I stay in tube and continue to shoot until the last possible second, at which time I try to escape out the back as the wave implodes and explodes sending water, foam, sand, rocks everywhere. The sound is a very loud boom! I escape out the back and am faced with the next wave, usually even larger about to break. Maybe I can get a few shots of this wave in time? Maybe I will just need to swim as fast as I can out to see to escape this one? If there are many waves in a set, I may then have to go under 3-8 more waves, before the ocean calms down again for a minute or so. Then, repeat.
Can you give us a brief technical explanation of how it is done?
Explanation is above. I put myself into the most critical section of the wave, and get as many shots as I can, before the wave explodes and loses its form. If I am lucky, I will escape out the back of the wave in the last second.
Of course, I am also looking around at the sun and clouds, wave / swell direction, looking for great backdrops to have behind/infront of the wave. When all of the factors come together, that is when you have a great shot. I try to get as many lined up as I can.
I also do this a lot, so most of it is by instinct. I am just reacting.
Why are you drawn to waves?
I live just 5 minutes from the ocean. I was raised at the beach since I was about 5 years old. I love waves, love surfing, love the beach. Being out in the waves really refreshes. All of my worries and stress is gone after I get in the ocean. There is no other subject that has had a deeper influence on my life and which provides this kind of feeling.
Is there some distinguishing quality that you can attribute to the North Shore waves of Oahu?
It is where I live and where I was raised. I am very comfortable here. It is also one of the most famous shorelines in the surfing world. Some of the most famous surf breaks are here and some of the best surfers in the world challenge their abilities in this place.
North shore also offers some incredible water clarity, which is a big big plus for a photographer. Weather is great all year long. And it is countryside. People are mellow and its very close knit community. I would never live anywhere else.
What is the physical requirement of shooting waves?
You have to be an extremely good swimmer. The camera is also close to 10 pounds. Holding it and lifting it up hundreds of times a day requires a strong arm and a tough writst.
You also must have a deep understanding of waves. Waves break in a matter of seconds, so quick reactions are a must. If timing is off, it could lead to some serious injuries or death. In order to react quickly, you must be in top shape both physically and mentally. I don’t usually train, but I shoot 4+ days each week. When I go out, I am out 1-4 hours at a time. If it is good, it hits almost 5 hours before I come in. Sometimes I will go out and shoot twice in a day.
Do you place yourself in dangerous situations to get the perfect shot?
Definelty. I find, the more critical the situation, the more unusual the wave, which in turn means a better shot. The longer I can hold out and stay in the tube, the better it gets. If you are conservative in your approach to wave photography, it will show in your shots.
Do you ever feel fear?
Yes on the big days there is an element of fear. Fear is a good thing to have, since it will keep you hyper aware.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can break a bone, paralize you or in the worst case, drown. The danger is real. Many people get hurt and a few die each year along these beaches. I have not had it too much, but a few years ago I was held under by a series of very big waves, and couldn’t get up for air. About 8 big waves came in a row. Some I got under, others I was held under. Things start fading out and I was thinking of my family, wife and kids. I thought it could be the end. Luckily, I was able to get back up in time and fight the rest of the waves. When I got into shore I was shaken and have been more careful since.
In other cases, I have separated my shoulder when I got picked up by a wave and thrown into the dry sand. There was a loud “crunch” and my shoulder hurt. I had a hard time moving it for a few weeks, but was back photographing about 3 weeks later. It still has a big bump at the top. Other times I have been hit in my head by my camera. That is probably the most dangerous part. The camera weights about 10 pounds. I have a leash that connects it to my wrist in case it slips out of my hand. A few times it has hit me in the head and given me some gashes with blood coming down.
But luckily, nothing too bad has happened. I consider myself very very lucky up to this point. I hope it continues.
Has a wave ever swept your camera away?
I strap my camera housing to my wrist with a leash. But on the big days I have had the leash shredded, and the camera ripped from my hand. My swim fins are usually ripped from my feet too. It sucks.
It has happened a handful of times, but each time I have been able to retrieve my camera and housing. My camera setup costs over $10,000, but usually I am thinking of the photos that I might lose, not the camera itself. I search hard in the water and up and down the coast to find it. I have never not found a lost camera. Lucky so far!
Do you have a favorite photograph that you managed to capture?
My favorite photography these days is “Big Blue” this is also the cover of my new book “Shorebreak”. It’s the cover for a reason. I absolutely love it. So many great factors came together to make this shot. It is taken later in the morning, on a day without any wind and without much clouds. The sun is bright and lighting everything up. The size of the wave is well over-head, maybe about 8-10 foot face. The wave is breaking in some very shallow water, that is why you see the sand getting sucked up into the wave. The water clarity on this day was phenominal. When a wave like this breaks, it detonates and explodes. But the moment I captured, is just a few seconds before all hell break’s loose.
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