Photographer Clark Little’s career broke open all of a sudden, just like one of the thick waves that rises up against the North Shore of Oahu and slams into the sand. After a British web site sent out a newsletter with a link to some of his images, his life turned upside down. He appeared on numerous TV shows, exhibited his work in the Smithsonian, opened two galleries, and published a book, The Shorebreak Art of Clark Little. But it was more than three decades of playing in the ocean that set him up for success.
Read our interview with Clark Little to find out how he made a career out of photographing waves.
Big Blue Clark Little
Little grew up surfing the North Shore of Oahu. “My brother and I both surfed most of our lives,” he says. “He’s gnarly. Big, big waves. I kind of surfed the shorebreaks and did my own thing.” He learned how to read the waves, and he got a rush from getting tumbled after wiping out.
Sandy Shack Clark Little
The thing that really got Little into the water with his camera? His wife brought home a photo of a wave from a local photo store. It was shot from land. He told her not to buy the picture. “I’ll go in there and I’ll get a nice big wave. I’ll get a killer shot for the wall of our house.”
Sun Curl Clark Little
Although Little now uses a Nikon D300 with multiple lens options and camera bodies, he started out with a simple point-and-shoot. “It would hesitate before you’d shoot. And I’d get beat up.”
Triple Crown Clark Little
People who have never been in the water out of fear have written to Little in praise of his photography, and he loves it when people get “stoked” about his art. Little wants to capture images that people usually don’t get to see: the inside of a shorebreak a second before it hits, or dry sand just before it’s lifted into a wave.
Tunnel to Paradise Clark Little
This was one of the toughest shots Little’s ever taken. “It’s not the most beautiful shot, but it’s gnarly,” he says. “I was able to shoot it with a flash right on this semi-dry sand…Of course, I’m gonna just get sucked over and pounded. But it really gives you a trippy look, like, ‘Wow, is this real?’”
Clarks View Clark Little
Little relies on instinct when he’s going for a shot. Aside from keeping track of the conditions and attempting to stay as safe as possible, he’s also trying to figure out what will look good. “There are several different things you look at before you go out. Then the magic just happens when you get out in the right spot and just feel a part of the ocean.
Crystal Ball Clark Little
If a wave is coming down in a clean way, Little says, he can get one shot, but if it’s coming down and over, he can get as many as 12. If the wave doesn’t bang him up too much, he’ll catch a quick preview of the shot right after. “Your flash is strobing, and you’re like, ‘That one’s probably money.’”
Flame Clark Little
When Little was still fairly unknown, a British website asked to publish some of his work, and Little’s life changed overnight – really. “The morning after this guy put the stuff up they threw me and a friend on a redeye right to New York. It was surreal.”
Flying Honu Clark Little
Little has shot in waves of all sizes, and sometimes he’s able to catch turtles or dolphins, but getting thrashed is what he loves most. “I truly love a clean beautiful day where the waves are just thick and gnarly and where you have some fear. Good fear, if you know what I mean, more of an adrenaline rush with excitement.”
Marlin Clark Little
Little thinks this is probably his favorite shot of all time. “I remember taking it. I saw it for a split second and I’m like gosh, this is unbelievable,” he says. “It’s just this frozen water that looks like a glass blown image. It’s just this crazy shot that I’ve never been able to get something close to again.”
Memorial Day Clark Little
Little never thought his photos could turn into a full-time career. He was working as a keeper at a botanical garden when he first started taking photos, and he tried to get his work shown at galleries in his spare time. “It kept getting better,” he said, and eventually he decided to pursue photography full-time.
Pink Flash Clark Little
Little is always trying for something new. “A different angle, below water, above water, different lighting. I’m using a flash a lot in the nighttime. That’s another really fun thing to do.”
Pipe Bomb Clark Little
He’s avoided head injuries so far, but holding a camera in the middle of a huge wave has its risks. Little has gotten hurt plenty of times, including a separated shoulder in 2011. “You don’t have a choice when the wave is sucking you in and you get thrown up the beach. You try to curl up in a fetal position and hope for the best, really.”
Sand Monster Clark Little
“Sand Monster is one that stands out,” Little says of one of his original shots. “It was cool to get that first shorebreak shot, because that’s what I went out there to do – to just get these looks that nobody wants to put themselves into. I love getting thrashed, so it worked out.”