In Clark Little’s spectacular shorebreak photography, he takes you directly inside a wave so you can witness firsthand its power and its beauty. Growing up on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, Clark surfed the fearsome Waimea Bay shorebreak in his youth and now captures it and many other heart-stopping waves around the world with his camera. His technique of placing himself right inside the lip of the wave as its about to crash down is both dangerous and revealing.
Little’s gorgeous image above is titled “Last Blast,” and the story behind it epitomizes what his unique process is all about. In this edition of “How I Made It,” he gives us the inside scoop on the image and explains why he calls it one of his best shots ever.
If you want to see more of Little’s work, including the behind-the-scenes photo we’ve included below (shot by his son Dane), you should get a copy of his beautiful new book, “Clark Little: The Art of Waves,” which goes on sale tomorrow. You can also visit his website and Instagram page. You can see previous “How I Made It” behind-the-image stories here, here, here, here, and here.
Q: Can you give us a little background on you as a photographer?
Clark Little: I am self-taught. I just went out and did it and learned as I went along. I also got some great tips along the way from people who were doing it professionally. Growing up, my dad was a photography teacher at a private high school and university in Hawaii, so I was raised around dark rooms, cameras, and photography. I just didn’t have any interest in it until I was in my late 30s, about 15 years ago.
That is when my wife bought a photograph to put in our bedroom. It was a picture of a wave, shot from shore by a local photographer. I looked at the picture and thought, “I could do that, but even better.” My thought was if I had a waterproof camera, I could get a close-up shot from inside the water and from inside the wave.
I was raised surfing big waves on the North Shore of Oahu and had confidence that I could do it and not get hurt. So, I had my wife return the picture and I went onto Amazon and bought a cheap water housing for a point-and-shoot camera. It was far from professional. When that came in the mail, I took it out and had a lot of fun. That got me going. And with my family and friends excited by the shots I was getting, a few months later I put down bigger money and bought a much better setup.
My first Nikon camera was the D200 with a 10.5mm fisheye lens and a sturdy water housing for it. Then things really took off. Within a year, I had stopped my full-time job and I was able to do my photography to support my family, pay the mortgage, etc.
Q: What’s the story behind the photo?
Clark Little: Here’s the story behind “Last Blast.” This photo is captured by laying down on the dry sand, holding the camera steady as a big wave breaks over me. I get as many shots in as I can before I get nailed and taken up the beach.
There are certain conditions with the sand bar, swell size, and swell direction, when the waves break right on shore. Some of these tubes could easily fit a truck in them. It’s big and it’s powerful. During these conditions, most of the waves break just like this, on dry sand. I can’t put on a pair of swim fins and swim around to get my shots; there is no water to swim in where the waves break. The only way I can do it is to wait on the shore about 50-100 feet up the beach, then pick a good wave, run at it at full speed, and throw my body down in front of it right before it tubes. There is a lot of running involved, that is why the technique is called “run and gun” or “ground and pound.”
After a few seconds, gravity takes over and the wave tube collapses in an explosion. This sends the water shooting up the beach like a river. I am taken away in that. Sometimes I end up 50 feet beyond where I started. Not all waves will tube nicely. Sometimes there is no tube, and I am laying down on the sand and just get bulldozed. Selecting the right wave and having some luck on your side with it throwing a big tube is part of it.
“Last Blast” is one of my best shots I ever got doing this. And I have done it thousands of days. What I love is the window looking out to the calm world. The grains of sand that are just inches below my camera are so clear too. When I see the sand and small rocks, it reminds me where I get all the sand coming out of my ears. I am constantly coughing up sand and small rocks. And my hearing is pretty bad if my ears are full of sand. It takes a day or more to clear this stuff out.
Q: Why do you think this image has resonated so much with people?
Clark Little: It’s a place where people just won’t find themselves. They can’t be where I am to see it for themselves. Your average person would get seriously hurt and probably break a bone or even their neck. Drowning would be a real possibility. People die on this stretch of beach that I shoot on. I think people know this. They know I am taking them along to see a mysterious and beautiful place. They must also feel, it’s just a moment in time. We are looking at moving water suspended for just a few seconds. And to have it feel like a cozy cave with a little window looking out. The camera captures it and freezes it so we can all look at it. I have seen a million waves, but they continue to amaze me. I can look at a shot like this many times and see something new each time.
Q: What were some of the challenges with this photo?
Clark Little: To capture a photo like this, it’s dangerous and requires speed, skill, and some luck. The weather also has to be sunny and clear, so I have enough lighting to light up the sand and the inside of the wave. How much sand getting pulled up by the wave will make a big difference. One thing I have to be careful of is not to have any water droplets on the outside of the housing dome. Often there is sand getting thrown around as the tube forms too, and that can hit the camera and wreck the shot. A few big droplets of water on the dome or sand flying at it and the shot is a throw away.
What makes the shot is the window looking out to the beach. The wave has to break just right to allow a window like that to stay open and not to have a lot of water and sand flying around to block the opening. That part is luck. The challenge is shooting this kind of wave for almost 15 years and just having a few really good shots like this. You need to be patient and just keep shooting day after day for years. I have many shots that almost look like this, but something somewhere in it is messed up. There must be 10-15 conditions that have to all come together and line up just right to have a shot like this.
Q: Can you share some technical details about how this image was shot including gear used, settings, etc.?
I shot this with my Nikon D4 using a 10.5mm fisheye lens. The shutter was at 1/1250 seconds, ISO 200, shutter priority mode, and white balance on auto. Not sure which water housing I used, but the housings are waterproof and specially made to withstand high impact hits. I used to have some made custom, then started buying them from various makers. As water photography has become more popular there is now a bigger selection.
On the water housing, there is a trigger for the index finger that connects to the camera and shoots when pulled. The D4 can get around 10 shots per second. Because the wave is moving and things happen fast, I need to get as many shots as I can get.
I still use the D4 on occasion, it’s my back-up camera. I mainly use a D5 now. My shots are taken with 10.5, 16, 24 and 50mm Nikon fisheyes, depending on how wide I want to get the waves. Sometimes I am going for closeups.
Back to the gear used to get this shot: I also have a long sleeve wetsuit top that I wear. It helps with getting hit and scraped by the sand and small rocks. It also offers protection from the sun. In my kit is a lot of sunscreen. This shot was taken mid-day. Sometime I am out from the morning until lunch, go home and nap and come back again in the afternoon. Shooting 4-6 hours a day is not unusual. I need the sun protection to do this day in and day out.
I also have special surf trunks that I have made and call “Shorebreak” surf shorts. I designed these with my team, and we actually sell them. They are made to withstand the impact of big shorebreak waves and have special features in them to drain out the sand and keep the shorts from getting ripped up or taken off. I can’t go up the beach naked after taking my shots.
For this shot, I have to run to the wave, so I don’t have swim fins on. But all of my other shots not taken on the sand, require swim fins. When the waves get big, I need the fins to survive. It’s a critical part of my gear when I am not doing the run-and-gun shots.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your new book, “The Art of Waves.”
Clark Little: “The Art of Waves” is a hardcover book, 240 pages with over 150 photos of waves, the ocean and marine life. I shoot with whales, sharks, dolphins and, of course, my favorite, the turtles too. Since I mainly shoot near my home on the North Shore of Oahu, some of the biggest and most consistent shorebreak in the world, that stretch of ocean is heavily featured. But the book isn’t just about the North Shore, other parts of Oahu (secret beaches), the outer Hawaiian islands including Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island. California is in there, also French Polynesia, Tonga and a shot from the Galapagos. A real healthy mix of what I love shooting.
This book that showcases everything I have done since the beginning when I bought my Nikon D200 up until now. It captures my whole story, both in pictures and in essays and the foreword by surfing legend Kelly Slater. I really got into the captions on some shots to help people understand what is going on, or what is interesting about certain shots. What may seem normal to me, after seeing millions of waves, is unusual for everyone else. I try to point things out and talk about what goes through my mind when I am shooting the surf and marine life. Some of the newer shots were put in just days before the book selection closed and it went off to the printer.
Being 54 this year, it’s hard to say how long my body can keep taking the beatings. I take each day, each week, each month, and each year as they come. And try to live it like it’s the last.
Q: What are you working on next?
Clark Little: The book has been the big project. There will be some products that launch with it next year like a postcard set and a jigsaw puzzle. But right now, there is nothing coming up next, except to keep myself in shape during this summer months so I can be out there when the big winter swells come through in the fall and winter.