Surfer Photographer Captures Power and Beauty of Waves

Clark Little shares images "from the inside out."

sun inside a wave

Clark Little / "Clark Little: The Art of Waves"

Since he first started surfing in Hawaii around age 5, Clark Little has been entranced by the beauty and power of waves. He became known for surfing the Waimea Bay shorebreak where waves often reach heights of 25 feet.

Little became fascinated with capturing his unique perspective by photographing from inside, under a wave’s lip as it is about to crash on the sand. He calls it "photographing from the inside out." Now a well-known wave photographer, his work has appeared in National Geographic and in the Smithsonian Museum and has been the subject of documentaries.

His new book, “Clark Little: The Art of Waves,” includes more than 150 of Little’s photos including breaking waves, marine life in Hawaii, and aerial images. The collection includes a foreword by world surfing champion Kelly Slater and an afterword by Little explaining his techniques.

Little talked to Treehugger about his relationship with waves, his most exciting and daunting moments, and why he thinks hit images resonate with so many fans. The images here are from the new book.

Treehugger: Born in California and growing up in Hawaii, how did your relationship with surfing and the ocean start?

Clark Little: My relationship with the ocean started when my dad moved us all to Hawaii from Napa, California. He was tasked with setting up the photography department at Punahou School, a private school in Honolulu. We lived on campus in Manoa Valley. The school is less than a 15 minutes drive to Waikiki—that was where I was first exposed to surfing. Hawaii is great since the beach is our park and playground. Kids just play growing up on the beach and in the waves. You get tossed around and learn to swim. 

When I was about 5 or 6 that’s when I first started surfing and could stand up on a board. Our family liked the countryside more than Honolulu, the city, so we eventually moved up to the North Shore of Oahu. It was at Haleiwa Beach Park on the North Shore where my brother and I really learned to surf with the help of some great teachers. Then as we got older, our favorite wave became Waimea Bay, just up the coast. I loved to surf the shore break closeout waves at Waimea. My brother Brock loved the big waves on the outside.

wave on the sand

Clark Little / "Clark Little: The Art of Waves"

How often were you in the water?

We were in the water as much as we could. I was lucky in that our parents loved going to the beach and everyone around us did too. When I was younger we would just go on the weekends, but eventually, my brother and I got things dialed in and got good at surfing and went every day the waves were good. When you are addicted to surfing, you hate missing a swell, so we would be in the water all the time. 

When I became a manager of a botanical garden and had full-time work in my 30s, then my surfing time and beach time went way down. I had a family to support and a lot of responsibilities to take care of. It wasn’t until I started shooting photography, and making that a new career, that I got back into the ocean regularly. I don’t take it for granted that I can go to the beach almost any day. I am just five minutes from the waves on the North Shore. When it's good I will be out daily for weeks at a time. Sometimes I go in twice in one day. On my longer days, I am out 5 to 6 hours total and my skin is like a raisin.

wave swell

Clark Little / "Clark Little: The Art of Waves"

How did you first begin photographing waves “from the inside out”?

It all started when my wife, Sandy, bought a photograph of a wave taken from the beach by another photographer. She wanted to put it up in our bedroom. I looked at it and thought, “I can shoot a better picture and take it from inside the tube.” I made her return the photograph. I then went on Amazon and bought a cheap water housing for my point-and-shoot camera. I took that camera and housing out to Waimea Bay shore break and played around, trying to get some tube pictures. 

The camera was really slow to react since it had to autofocus and think. I missed so many shots but got a few good ones. I couldn’t believe how fun it was. And then I showed them to my friends, everyone was stoked and encouraged me to keep going. A few months later I talked to a professional surf photographer and picked his brain on what camera and equipment I should buy to get some better photographs. I then upgraded to a professional setup and that is when everything took off. 

inside a wave

Clark Little / "Clark Little: The Art of Waves"

What were some of your favorite moments capturing these images?

My favorite moments are when the waves and conditions line up perfectly. The water clarity is beautiful, the tide is epic, the waves are pumping and the swell angle is just right, winds are offshore or calm, the weather is great and the sun is out. These are some of the factors that go into a “perfect day," which only all line up once in a while. And when they do, it's pure magic.

Sometimes the conditions aren’t perfect, actually, sometimes it's awful, but I go out shooting anyway. These can be some of the most rewarding days since my expectations are so low. When I find a diamond in the rough or I make lemonade out of lemons, the reward is even greater. You never know when a day can turn around or the conditions change. Even bad conditions can bring out the drama in a shot. I tell myself, “Just go out.” 

What about the most daunting?

The daunting moments are when I get caught in a bad situation. Sometimes the waves are so powerful and I end up in the wrong spot, getting my fins ripped from my feet and the camera ripped from my hand, including the leash that is tied to my camera and wrist. It’s a serious thrashing. These situations are jolting and make me pay extra attention. 

I had a day when 7 to 8 large waves (larger than a two-story house) broke on my head and threw me deep underwater. I ran out of air and wondered how many more I could physically take. Flashes of my family, my wife, and kids went through my head. Just able to get up to the surface and get the next breath of air, before I was pummeled again. And when I got through it and finally got back to shore, I called it a day. That day changed my approach to going out in crazy large waves. I look at the swells a little more carefully before jumping in. It’s good advice for anyone who goes in the ocean.

Clark Little shooting in the waves
Clark Little shooting in the waves.

Jacob VanderVelde / "Clark Little: The Art of Waves"

You have quite the social media following. Why do you think people are so fascinated with your wave photos?

I think people are fascinated with nature—its mystery and beauty. I am fortunate in that the ocean and the beaches here in Hawaii are so beautiful. I am beyond lucky to be able to work with this quality of subject matter. 

I also think people are especially connected to water. There is a deep human connection to water. I feel it and I think others can too. It might come through my photography. Maybe it's because we are 60% water? Maybe it's the fact you can go weeks without food, but only days without water? Maybe it's our first memories of being in the womb, surrounded by water? And what the water can do in the ocean, in the shape of waves, is endlessly fascinating. Waves can look so different when the conditions change. Sometimes they look like a glass sculpture. With a sunrise or sunset behind it, the wave can look like it's on fire. Waves can be textures with the wind and smooth as silk with dead winds. Have puffs of foam across it like snow. Spray flying off the top when it's strong offshore windy. It’s nature’s art. 

And then there is the tube. Where else on earth are you in an air pocket and surrounded by moving water on three sides, and able to look out at the land from the opening? I try to frame things up in that opening. A peek-a-boo view of the beach. Palm trees at the end of a barrel. The setting sun framed in the curve of the tube. The sand getting sucked up off of the seafloor into the wave. These are things most people will never see. I try to bring them along to see it. Show them something unique.

sea turtle in wave

Clark Little / "Clark Little: The Art of Waves"

Do you have any other favorite subjects other than waves?

In my book, you will see photos of the turtles, whales, sharks, and other things in the ocean. The book is titled “The Art of Waves” but there are photos without waves. When the waves are small in the summer, I go out and shoot marine life. It keeps me active and going to the beach. It’s their home, and I am the visitor. It feels great to be able to document what goes on beyond the waves and beyond the edge of the ocean where the water meets the reef and beach. When I go out to the darker water, it's another world and is just as thrilling to swim around it. Swimming with a tiger shark is as thrilling as being inside the tube of a large wave.

Is there anything you’d really love to photograph that you haven’t?

Nothing comes to mind. I tend to do exactly what I want to do. Maybe visit some more beaches and shore breaks in other parts of the world? But who knows, there might be a day when I try something different and a new door opens, then another 15-year adventure unfolds. I never in a million years expected to be a photographer. It happened late in my life, unexpectedly. I followed a passion. Made sure it was fun. And did it 110%. The same thing could happen again to me. I am always open to a new adventure.