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 photography at the Smithsonian museum, 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. The 43-year-old grew up on the North Shore. While his older brother Brock gained fame paddling into the world’s monsters, Clark surfed the shorebreaks. He learned how to read the waves, how to time his ride, and how to fall when he wiped out—which happened quite a bit. He got a rush from getting tumbled, so it was a bit strange when he took a 9-to-5 job as a keeper at the local botanical garden. He got married, started a family, and then found himself in a situation where his wife needed him to dive back into one of those big waves to take a picture. He jumped right in and got hooked all over again. A few years later he quit his job and decided to shoot full time. He’s been tumbling in the wake of that decision ever since.
View the full photo gallery of Clark Little's shorebreak photography.
OUTSIDE: How did this all start?
CLARK LITTLE: It’s been probably five years or so. The wife brought home a picture of a wave from a place called Pictures Plus. And I said, “Honey, don’t buy that picture.” It was a shorebreak wave that somebody shot from land. I was like, “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.”
I had this small little camera, a point-and-shoot SD 500 Canon. I took my first photos of some shorebreaks using a little housing. Back then it was just one shot at a time, and it would hesitate before you’d shoot. And I’d get beat up. I played around in the shorebreak for a month or two and got some cool looks and shared it with my family and friends. No one was really doing it at that time. After two months I ended up investing $4,000 for a housing, a camera, and a nice fisheye lens.
Was there one picture that pushed you forward?
There was never the one picture. Sand Monster is one that stands out. That was one of the originals. I actually got the sand coming up in a kind of cloud on a nice good sized wave, maybe a four- or six-foot wave just sucking up probably knee high. It was cool to get that first shorebeak shot, because that’s what I went out there to do—to just get these looks that nobody wants to put themselves into. I was in my comfort zone. I love getting thrashed, so it worked out. 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. I kind of strive for that.
Was there a moment when you thought photography could be a career?
There was no intention of being a professional photographer. I had a full-time job, which I resigned about three years ago. I was a botanical garden supervisor in Wahiawa. It was a city job where I had all of the benefits of medical, dental, vacation, sick leave. I could pay the bills. We were going door to door, doing trips to different galleries trying to get our stuff in, and it kept getting better. And so that’s where I saw the light and made this huge decision. I took that leap [to doing photography full-time] and that was the biggest thing. And once I did that, the door just went from a crack to wide open.
How did you really start to gain recognition?
The biggest thing for me was there was this UK site that loved the images and they gave me a shout. This [guy at a] big news agency said, “Clark, we’ve seen your web site. Send me your 20 best images.” I thought, “Okay, whatever.” And maybe a month later, he got back to me and said, “Hey Clark, we’re going to run with this.” And I said, “Okay.” And then I went to sleep and I woke up the next morning and there were 700 e-mails. I’m not even exaggerating. It was chaotic. I had an assistant that was up on the phone with people from all over the world including Good Morning America, The Today Show, and Inside Edition. The morning after this guy put the stuff up, they threw me and a friend on a redeye right to New York. It was 17 degrees and snowing. It was surreal. Before you know it I was sitting in front of four cameras—and Diane Sawyer and Robin. That was one of the weirdest experiences.
Are you just diving into the breaks right when they’re hitting? What are you looking for?
It all depends on the conditions. I used to surf the shorebreaks, so I have some knowledge and experience, and a passion. As a little kid I went in a one-foot shorebreak. Now, it’s all the same thing, but on a larger scale. But if it’s dry sand? In those situations, I’m running down the beach as this wave’s coming and I sort of jump in the sand as a 10- to 12-foot wave face just lunges over.
Once you do that and get down there and commit yourself, you get slapped hard. Your bell gets rung many times, but it’s also an adrenaline rush. You’ve got to be in shape. And it’s a timing thing. If you’re running down and you get tubed, and kind of go over the falls in a nice wave, you have to keep yourself in the right direction, not head over heels. You have to know how to fall. When you get slammed into the sand you just gotta know how to make sure that the camera’s not going to hit your head. It just kind of turns into an instinct thing.
When it’s big, you literally can’t survive without swim fins. You’ll drown. Then it’s just my camera and fins and trying to be in shape and trying to avoid the dangerous situations. It’s just knowing: What looks good? What are the conditions? Where is the sun setting? Where is the sun rising? Is it glassy? The backdrop. The beautiful sandy beach. The coconut trees. 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.
What kind of equipment are you using?
I started with that point-and-shoot and then I got a Nikon D200 with a fisheye lens. Then I went to a D300. Now I use a Nikon D3 camera with also a 24mm or fisheye lens. I have probably four camera bodies and a half dozen lenses that I use regularly. I use water housings from Water Housings Hawaii and SPL.
How much of a time window do you have for these shots?
For the most part you’re shooting anywhere from 5 to 10 frames a second, and usually, it’s just that one click. As the wave’s sucking up and I’m getting my camera ready, pointing towards it, you can get anywhere from one, if the wave’s coming down in a clean way, to 10 to 12 shots, if it’s coming down and over. So you have to have a high shutter speed.
Have you gotten hurt?
Yeah, I get hurt. This last winter I separated my shoulder. I got slammed right into the dry sand and it took about a month or so [to recover]. Probably about a month ago, I bruised the MCL part of my knee. The gnarly ones are on the dry sand. I’ve gone in for two hours and just gotten, you know, boom, boom. And you run back and forth and just get sucked up the beach 50 feet. It’s fun though. You get a little system going where you get in a rhythm. But there’s times where you don’t see it coming and the knees or legs go a different way and it’s like, "Oh no." You try to avoid it. But when you’re lying in the dry sand and a wave is coming, anything can happen.
I’ve been fortunate not to get any head injuries. I mean, the camera is a weapon. That’s kind of my worry. I just really try to concentrate on holding my hand stiff and away, but when you get caught in the wrong waves at the wrong time, you go whatever way the waves are going to take you. You try to curl up in a fetal position and hope for the best, really.
In big waves, there are scary moments when I can’t breathe and there are ten waves coming. I can’t get out, and I can’t breathe, but I’ve still got to go under because a big wave’s coming. It’s gnarly, and I start to wonder, "What am I doing out here?" I have to assess the situation a little further. I have two beautiful children and a wife. I gotta watch what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong. I love it, but there are moments where I’m scared shitless.
Are you pushing yourself more or less now?
I’m always trying to get 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. I can shoot some shots on the sand with the waves throwing over. Just something that people don’t really get a vision of.
What was your toughest shot?
I’ve shot a bunch, but I’m thinking of one right now. I’m thinking of this cave, and it’s right before the sunset. I think we call it Tunnel to Paradise. It’s not the most beautiful shot, but it’s gnarly. I was able to shoot it with a flash right on this semi-dry sand. If you look far in the distance you can see the hole, the exit. And, of course, I’m gonna just get sucked over and pounded. But it really gives you a trippy look, like, "Wow, is this real?"
I’m just putting myself out there to get something new that’s not easy to do. No one’s out there really getting floundered around like that with the flash. The camera is already gnarly and big and heavy, but when I get the flash on there the thing has got to be over a foot high—with the adapters and everything. Talk about tuck and duck. And of course you’ve got to protect the camera or it’ll break in half. Protecting myself is number one, but of course you don’t want to break the camera. But to get that golden shot, that really cool shot, it is rewarding. It is a cool feeling to look back in the computer and go, “Wow, that is cool, that is trippy, that is different.”
Is there a moment when you know you have the shot?
Yeah. You feel it. And if I don’t get sucked over too hard, I can check it. It kind of gives you a second blurb of each image. You see this brief little sucking up shot, your flash is strobing, and you’re like, “That one’s probably money.” But until you get home and zoom in 100 percent, because there could be a splash, a burst, a spot, you don't know.
How much did your family growing up play a role in your career?
They were huge. I mean, my brother and I both surfed most of our lives. He’s gnarly. Big, big waves. Outside kind of stuff—Mavericks and Waimea Bay. I’ve always looked up to him and supported him. And I do get opinions from everybody. They helped me take the next step. It’s an exciting, stimulating career, but without the family, it wouldn’t be the same. It’s always good to come home to my beautiful wife and kids, see my parents, talk to my bro. And living here on the North Shore and knowing the lifeguards and being able to show my work at restaurants? It’s rad. It’s the whole ‘ohana. The family of the North Shore of Oahu has been really good to me, and I’m very grateful.
Marlin, by Clark Little
Do you have a favorite shot of all time?
It’s super hard to pick just one. But I remember when I took Marlin. National Geographic used it and Sierra magazine put it on the cover. It’s a real special image. And we sold out of our limited editions of it, which is an honor. So Marlin is probably the one, and I remember taking it. I saw it for a split second and I’m like gosh, this is unbelievable. It’s just this frozen water that looks like a glass blown image. The sun is rising. The backwash. It just flew up there with this beautiful arch. It’s just this crazy shot that I’ve never been able to get something close to again.
Funny thing is, and I’m not trying to harp on Surfer mag or anything, but I was shooting at that time for Surfer. I got these three shots: Mohawk, Marlin, and Explosion. They were three things that I just thought were unbelievable. I just thought in my heart that it’s going to be something someday. And the funny thing is, I sent these three images off to Surfer and they said, “Okay, cool, we might run them.” And I thought, “Geez, okay, what am I missing?”
I couldn’t believe it. And that didn’t damper me. I knew they were still special and a year or six months down the line National Geographic did a spread. And that’s nothing to do with Surfer, I’m stoked they gave me an opportunity. It’s just, everybody's got a different eye.
What’s the ultimate goal for you taking these images?
First of all, I love doing it and I love being in the ocean. To capture that image is another thing. I used to surf that shorebreak. It was like nothing you could imagine. Now, I go out there with my fins and my camera and I can click that image, and take it home and put it on the wall and have it for life. It’s a rad thing. And then beyond that is being able to stoke other people out. Share the images with people. I’ve had some radical stories and radical e-mails where, on a sad note, someone’s been going through cancer or something and they’re telling me how special it was to see my image and how it lifted them up and got them through the hard times. It’s cool to see how people can be captivated. People that have never been in the water, that are scared, that say, I saw your images and it just brought me this awesome feeling. Talk about giving me chicken skin, goosebumps, or whatever you want to call it. That’s part of the whole package.