Looking Down the Barrel with Surf Photographer Clark Little

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Photographs Courtesy Clark Little

Real adventurers earn their photos. From running the cliffs of the Grand Canyon, to kayaking the whitewater of the remote Nachvak River, and taking selfies atop the Seven Summits, we found the folks pushing the limits of photography and adventure. 

The inside of a breaking wave, often called the tube, barrel, or green room, is a sacred place. Beautiful, fleeting, ethereal, and enchanting, no two waves are alike and placing yourself inside them offers a connection to nature and awe inspiring view that few of us will ever get to experience first hand. Lucky for us, Clark Little spends a lot of time inside the ocean and its waves and is incredibly skilled with a camera. His water photography brings us along with him and shows us just how magical and stunning the barrel really is. Bright tropical colors, crystal clear water and tack sharp focus are his trademarks. They have catapulted him into photographic stardom. Just check out his Instagram account and you, along with nearly two million other followers, can see the magic for yourself on a daily basis. 

How did you get into your specific style of photography? 
I got into photography about eight years ago when my wife wanted a photo of a wave to hang on our bedroom wall. She actually bought one of a wave which was taken from the beach with a long lens. But I had her return it and said I could get a better shot. I grew up surfing large shorebreak waves and figured I could take a camera out and capture an unusual looking wave. I then went out and bought a small waterproof camera housing for a point and shoot camera and gave it a try. After trying this, I was hooked and haven’t stopped going out since.

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I shoot shorebreak waves from inside the ocean with a waterproof camera. I try to get an interesting perspective of a breaking waves, something that an average person couldn’t see unless they were actually in the water and able to swim in large surf.

I live on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii which is known for its large Winter surf. Most of my shots are from this stretch of shoreline. I also shoot turtles, whales and sharks when the waves are small or during the summer months when the North Shore waves go flat. This keeps me active and gets me in the water and keeps me shooting. 

When was the first moment you realized that you could make a living off photography?
My family and friends were complimenting on how much they liked the shots from the start, but once I started selling some pictures through my website and a few smaller galleries, I thought I had a chance. It really came together after I appeared in a live segment on Good Morning America in New York. That week I also had a short segment on the Today Show and Inside Edition as well as featured articles in the big daily papers in the UK. It hit from so many angles. Things all of a sudden blew up and I woke up with hundreds emails one morning, most of them sales from the website. 


What does getting photographs inside of waves the way you do entail?
Obviously being a good swimmer and having a deep understanding of waves is required. I had surfed for decades in these waves before I took a camera out. There are a lot of quick bursts and movements to get into the right zone and split-second reactions to get out of danger. Some of my best shots are taken when I put myself in the critical zone and stay there to the very last millisecond before the waves explodes. I ride that edge to get a great shot.

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A wave is a moving object. As it hits the sandbars and reefs it will shift and change. Depending on the swell size, tide, wind, and other variables, the wave will throw differently. Adjusting moment by moment is the key. Knowing when to abort or when to pursue a wave is also critical.  

Is it dangerous? 
Yes, it can be. The North Shore waves cannot be taken lightly, even for those that are professional or experienced. Each year there are many injuries along this stretch of the North Shore, some very seriously. There are also deaths. Many are swimmers, some are surfers and even photographers.  

Personally, I have had some close calls but luckily nothing serious. Knock on wood. Stitches in my head from when my camera hit me, separated shoulder when a wave threw me on to the dry sand, and a few close calls with almost blacking out when I was held under. But it’s the danger factor that keeps me focused, which I really like. 


Watching videos of you working, it seems like sometimes there’s no way to avoid getting pounded. What techniques do you use to stay safe in those conditions? 
I get pounded all day long and I love it. Every inch of my body gets blasted with salt water, sand and small rocks. There are so many tricks and techniques I do to stay safe. Tuck and roll. Land as flat as I can. Run underwater through the wave with the camera tucked under my arm like a football. Burst of kicking my swim fins. Anchor myself using my hand or fins. Swim through the back of a breaking wave. I have an arsenal of counter measures that work with each situation. I do it without thinking.

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What’s the worst beating you’ve taken while working? 
The scariest ones I have had are when the waves are very large, around the size of a second story house, and i get caught in a bad place. I have been trapped in the impact zone and almost ran out of air. 

One specific time, the waves didn’t stop coming in. Each one was landing on me and pushing me deep into the ocean. I would make it back up just in time to get another breath, before the next one landed on me. After getting rag dolled by seven or eight waves and being held under for extended periods of time, the body started to weaken and I started to fade out. My family was flashing through my head. I was able to get through this on my own, but when I made it back to shore, I did some serious reflecting. As a result, I am a bit more cautious before I go out in extra large surf.

What are some things and places you like to photograph besides waves?
I love to photograph Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, whales, and also sharks. Shooting these animals gets me in the water when the waves are small. And they are so interesting to be around. Swimming with the sharks without using a cage is a rush. 

Some of your shark photos are absolutely insane. Can you take us through what it’s like swimming with those large Tiger Sharks?
Its really hard to describe what it feels like to be swimming with these large animals. They are beautiful creatures. Time slows down. You get really focused. You move slowly. You watch them as they watch you. We are both curious about the other. There is a real connection there. And the feeling after you swim with them is incredible. You feel so alive.

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What does Instagram mean to you as a photographer and why do you think you’ve been so successful with it? 
I absolutely love Instagram. I can go out and shoot and within minutes after getting out of the water I can be posting pictures from that session and it goes around the world. Feedback from fans starts coming in after just a few seconds. I love how quick it all happens. For me, it is my favorite way to be in touch with fans. I can instantly find out what photos people like. And when I do tours, I can let people know I am in their city. So many people show up to the events from Instagram.

It has worked out well for me since I’m really into it. I use it all day long. I respond to questions and comments, sometimes hundreds a day. I am addicted in the best way possible.

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