Surf photography is not an easy way to carve out a living, but somehow, in a mere seven years, Oahu's Clark Little has become one of the most successful water photographers of all time -- and he rarely even trains his lens on humans. In 2007 Little took a waterproof camera rig down to the Keiki shorebreak -- a typically forgotten stretch of sand near Off The Wall and Pipeline -- and started experimenting. Picking up tips from friends along the way, Little proved to be proficient in his new craft (prior to photography, he was selling Hawaiian plumeria on the Internet). Fast forward to today and Little's work can be seen in surf magazines, National Geographic, the New York Times, LIFE, and has also been exhibited in the Smithsonian. His new book "Shorebreak" is now available and features Little's work in all its glossy glory. ESPN caught up with Little to find out how he makes his magic.
In the book, you say you see more aspiring photographers shooting in the shore-pound. Do you have any safety and/or gear tips for those just getting into it?
It might seem obvious, but make sure you are a good swimmer when going into the ocean. I see way too many ocean rescues each winter on the North Shore. I have helped in a dozen or so myself. Many are with people who are not experienced swimmers.
If you are heading into waves, you will also need knowledge and experience dealing with waves. The ocean looks beautiful from a photography standpoint but packs a lot of punch depending on conditions. I surfed for 30-plus years before I went into the ocean with my camera rig.
My critical equipment are my Ally swim fins. Without them there is no way I could be out in large surf. They get me to the right place to get the shot quickly, and just as importantly, they get me out of dangerous situations even faster.
Which surf photographers influence your work and why? What about photographers outside of surfing?
I have been influenced by all of the major surf photographers since I grew up reading all the Surfer Magazines. I couldn't really name just one. But I do give a lot of credit to Brian Bielmann. Not only is he an incredible photographer, but he helped me when I first was interested in buying a camera and housing to pursue wave photography more seriously. I had no idea what I was getting into, just excited with a new passion I found in shorebreak waves. He pointed me in a direction with camera settings for lighting and conditions and went through the equipment to buy. I still had to go through the school of hard knocks (literally), but what he shared with me allowed me to jump a few grades ahead. Outside of surfing, I really like Ansel Adams and his body of work.
As you get better at your work and capture more variety, where do you take it next? Bigger shorebreak? Storm surf? Arctic locales?
I don't really think about what's next too much. I am asked about that a lot, so I do think about it to answer the question. I figure as a new door approaches, I will open it and explore it. But for right now, there is no new door on the horizon, only the next big shorebreak wave. I am in the middle of swell and I will be out and appreciate every second until it dies down. Surfing taught me this. Don't think about the next swell. Ride the one that is happening right now.
One thing new that I did this year was go out for a series of photo sessions swimming with sharks -- no cage. Shooting sharks started when I went to French Polynesia in 2012 with Apple to shoot promo shots for their Retina Display launch. I swam with them in Moorea and it blew my mind. This year I hooked up with some North Shore friends who do this. The biggest rush was swimming alongside a 10 to 12-foot tiger shark and getting shots. It's not my comfort zone (yet), so the rush was pretty intense. I put some of these shark shots up on my Instagram/Facebook pages and people really liked them.
How has the transition been from full-time employment to freelance photography? What made you decide to forego a steady paycheck for something new, especially with a family to think about?
There wasn't much of a transition. It happened so fast. During the first year, I was juggling both the full-time job managing a botanical garden and photographing waves. I would come home at night after work and look through the shots I got during the weekends and pick out my favorites. When I started running out of time juggling my "hobby," family and job, I had to make a decision. One had to go and it wasn't going to be my family or my new "hobby." It was too fun. Once I made that decision, things picked up steam within months and it has been a high-speed ride ever since.
I knew there was risk involved with losing the security of a monthly paycheck and retirement. I had the job in my twenties and thirties and expected to do it until I retired in my sixties. It was a gut decision and all signs pointed for me to go for it. I figured, without my full-time job, I would solve problems and challenges as they came along, just like I do when I am out in the surf. When I shoot I usually don't plan more than one minute out. The average big decision is really three to five seconds out. It is reaction and good decision making that gets you through everything. I figured that would cross over.
What's the best thing about shooting shorebreak?
It is just five minutes from my home and family, it is great exercise and I love the rush. Of course the beauty is endless too. Throw in glassy mornings, sunsets, empty white-sand beaches as the back drops and the shots really come together. Back when I started, I really loved how nobody was around. It's too critical for most surfers. These days there are more people out there shooting and playing around, but it's still not as crowded as other surf spots on the North Shore.
What's the hardest part?
Missing any great day. I am so addicted that I can't miss a good day. If I have to travel for events or exhibits, and I miss out on a day when the waves are perfect and the water clarity is all-time, I get pretty bummed out. Once you are connected to something so closely, it is hard to get away.
Is there a particular wave that has your number or one that's particularly scary to shoot?
Keiki Beach on the North Shore brings out some of the scariest shorebreak I have ever seen. That is where I shoot a lot. Waimea Bay around the corner is no slouch either. When the waves are big and it's breaking on a shallow sand bar, it gets critical. There is very little room for error.
When I shot in French Polynesia, I went out to Teahupoo which is a legendary surfing wave that breaks across a reef. It is a mutant wave that sucks up like no other surfing wave in the world. The days that I shot were not huge by any means, but it filled me with adrenaline. It was the first time I saw and felt a reef wave that broke like a shorebreak wave -- sucking up and heaving onto a very shallow bottom.
Do you have a favorite wave at the moment?
The cover shot of my new book "Shorebreak" is a wave shot called Big Blue. It's a big glassy wave, breaking in just a few feet of water. You can see the sand getting sucked off the ocean floor. I love that shot. It is critical, yet beautiful and quiet. It captures the yin and yang of the ocean.