Ask A Pro: Clark Little On Photographing Waves
See that guy about to get creamed by that huge wave? That’s Clark Little, master of wave photography. He gets wetter than other shooters capturing ocean motion and here are some of his secrets — including “Hold your breath.”
You’re a surfer who has gained fame as a photographer — what exactly is your background?
I’ve been on Oahu’s North Shore for over thirty years — so I’m kind of raised here on the shore and in the Waimea Bay shorebreak. I’ve surfed the shorebreak off and on for years, and the love and joy for the oceans has always been with me. So, a couple years ago — maybe two and a half years ago — I decided to bring a camera. My wife wanted a picture for the house and I went and did it. What I do when I go out is use my surfing experience with the camera.
There’s a photo of you inside this overhead barrel (above) and you’re kind of just standing there, with camera in a hard casing with a dome for the lens and a handle on the bottom. Why do people use that setup in the water?
I preset everything before I go out in the water. When you’re out there and the big waves are coming in you don’t have time to look through a hole and be fiddling with things. You just point and shoot — once you have that sweet spot on all the settings it’s pretty much keeping the drops from the dome. It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. That’s where the knowledge comes in, so you can get into the most gnarliest impact zone as possible but you don’t get hammered.
For the most part, I try to stake out the back. I get doughnuts and get beat-up sometimes for sure, but at the same time I love to be in there and feel the thunder and the bass and the turbulence. It’s pretty cool. Mother nature has a lot of beautiful things to offer. It can get scary also — don’t get me wrong — but the ocean is my comfort zone fortunately, and I want to be out there. It’s not like I have to be out there, but I want to be out in the ocean, you know?
When you’ve got a camera in your hand and a big wave is coming, explain what your body does. What do you do with your body to make sure that you don’t lose your camera and you don’t get hurt?
First of all you get a good breath. It’s just anticipating. If I’m standing knee deep and a ten-foot wave is coming in, I’m actually going towards the beach because it’s sucking me out. You want to get in towards shore because you don’t want to miss the wave. If you get sucked out, sometimes it’s past the wave. You want to be in the impact zone, so you’re going the other way, knowing kind of where it’s going to break for the most part — you’re anticipating the sweet spot. And so you’re going the other way, and right when it breaks, you’re going to pull the trigger and try to get as many frames of that gnarliest barrel shot as possible. Of course after it breaks, for the most part, you try to sneak out the back of the wave.
You’re wearing fins?
Yeah you’re wearing fins for sure. That’s my life vest to be honest. I wouldn’t go anywhere without swim fins.
Is that because you have to carry a camera in your hands, so you can’t be paddling?
Yeah, the camera definitely is not light. It’s a chunk. When the waves are big, you forget about it, believe it or not. When you’re rocking and the waves are huge and you’re excited, you don’t even know. It’s like instinct, the hand goes up and click click click, and down and back and behind the wave, it turns in to an instinctive kind of thing.
Sometimes I run up and down the shore to get into position to get those weird ones that break right on the sand. For those I don’t wear fins because I gotta be fast — move in, move out. You get toasted every time you get the ones that are on the dry sand because there’s no way out, you can’t really get out the back of them. You just have to roll with it up the beach 30 feet or 40 feet.
Without giving away your secrets, can you tell us about your camera and your settings?
I use a Nikon D3 with a 16mm fish-eye lens, and then I also use a D200 and D300 with a 10.5mm lens. I preset the focus — there’s like a sweet spot on that. Depth of field is insane with that setup, so, pretty much everyone else can figure out the rest of it.
I’d like to see you with a Canon 5D Mark II and get some video to be honest.
There’s also the Nikon D300s. I could use my same waterproof housing and lenses and go out there and get some footage, I don’t know what 24fps would look like, but at least we could get an idea with this new camera.
All right so, just imagine you’ve got this buddy with no experience. How does someone with a point-and-shoot camera take pictures of waves?
For me with experience it’s different, but for the inexperienced, to start off I would just go with like a little SD Canon and a little underwater housing that costs around $US150. [Ed. note: You can also buy one of the new waterproof point-and-shoots from Pentax, Canon, Panasonic or Olympus.] You definitely gotta know how to swim, and you gotta have swim fins. You obviously gotta know your limits.
Be familiar with the ocean. Watch the waves prior to going out for at least 20 to 30 minutes, because sometimes there will be lulls or periods when there are no sets and then out of the blue a big 1.8 to 2.4 metre wave can come in and clean house. So you have to respect the Mother Nature, that’s huge. Once you get out there, you just give it a whirl and try to take some images. You gotta keep the lens clear, the front of the case. You can use Rain-X or you can spit on it. There are different methods that people use to keep it clear.
How many hours a week do you shoot?
It all depends — when the waves are good I’ll go out for a five-hour session and pretty much be fried all day. Or I’ll even do two two-hour sessions. On average, I would say at least a couple hours a day. When it’s good, I’m out there five hours.
Are you hunting waves the way surfers hunt waves? Going to places looking for hidden breaks?
I have a couple spots that I’ll call secret. There are maybe one or two guys that have found them. In general, I’m lucky to get everything right here in my home, and when I’m home shooting big Waimea shorebreaks or Waikiki shorebreaks, for the most part I’m by myself, which is good. A lot of photographers don’t want to get into the big shorebreaks and shoot waves. So I’m lucky in that aspect and I can just feel the motion of the ocean and play.
It’s like a playground for me. I’m like a kid in candy store, just having fun getting these images and coming home and looking at them and then sharing them with the world. It’s hopefully a win-win situation and, besides my family, it’s my joy.
Some people are painters, and they paint—it’s cool and it’s amazing and their talents are awesome. But it’s kind of neat to add that extreme factor to the art, trying to capture the art of the wave.
If you enjoyed Clark’s story and his amazing wave photos, check out hundreds more at his site, where you can order prints or limited-edition posters. Also, check out his brand new coffee-table book of shorebreak art, with forewords by Jack Johnson and Kelly Slater.