How do you photograph the world's most dangerous waves? You get thrashed.
Imagine being face-to-face with a wall of water so thick it looks impenetrable, despite its attractive turquoise-blue color. The sand is ripped up, and white foam forms from the sheer power of the ocean. This is all happening in split seconds. The wave crashes onto you and pulls you into its momentum, tossing you around inside like the spin cycle on a washing machine – involuntary cartwheels and somersaults. To survive, you stay calm, hold your breath and wait for the ocean to spit you out.
For Clark Little, this is just another day at work. Capturing the power of the wave is his job.
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Little is an award-winning ocean photographer who captures the ocean at its most powerful, merciless moments. His comfort with the ocean comes from being a surfer raised on the North Shore of Oahu, home to famous surf competitions at renowned breaks like Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay.
During the wintertime swells, behemoth waves (think up to 30 feet sometimes) can snap surfboards like twigs.
Little's work has been on display at the Smithsonian National Museum, The New York Times, The Surfer's Journal, National Geographic and more. Little also owns a gallery in Haleiwa.
"I want people to experience something mind-blowing in nature," Little told USA TODAY. "I want to take them to a dangerous and beautiful place up close. Most people can't be where I am. It's my way of taking people along."
Clark's photography has taken him to Japan, Brazil, Tonga and many other places, but his favorite place to shoot is still right in his backyard.
"I haven't seen any other place like it – with big waves and big tubes that break this close to shore, with warm, clear water and white sand beaches," he said.
How did Little get started?
"Growing up on the North Shore was life-changing," Little said. "I know I was very lucky. To have some of the best surf in the world just minutes from my house shaped me into who I am."
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Always having been attracted to high energy, he earned himself the childhood nickname of "Turbo."
Like many surfers, one of Little's favorite moments is getting barrelled. Also called "being the green room," the surfer is inside the curl of the wave, surrounded by water.
"Being in the waves, especially tube riding, is another world," he said. "In the early mornings, you get these wild reflections of the sun curving along the wave. Glassy days, the water surface reflects like a mirror and can still see the bottom."
When Clark was in his 30s, he picked up a waterproof camera on impulse to get a shot for his wife to frame.
He was hooked, and his career catapulted. In one year of shooting, he flew to New York to be on "Good Morning America." He quit his job at the botanical garden and started shooting full-time.
"For years, I would experience this magic, and try to explain it to people who didn't surf," he said.
What is a day in the life of a wave photographer like?
Little's office is a pounding shorebreak.
Little wakes up early and "starts his engine" with two shots of espresso with a dash of sugar. He checks the surf report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ocean buoys and chats his friends to figure out the plan for the day. When the waves are massive, Little can hear them right from his house.
"Knowing how big the waves are and the forecast for the day is critical," Little said.
He pays attention to a myriad of factors that can affect his photos, like swell direction, wave size, wind direction, water clarity, sandbar condition and the tide. Something like too much rain can kill water clarity. At the same time, "in the ocean, things can change in an instant. The key is to just go to the beach and see what happens."
Then it's game time.
He gets his camera ready and jumps in his truck, and brings his wetsuit and several pairs of fins ("I need extra sets since I lose fins in heavy waves and can't do what I do without them.") Depending on the waves and conditions, Little can be in the water before the sun rises. He can end up returning to the ocean three times in one day, like for sunset shots. Sometimes he'll be in the water for six straight hours and leave sunburnt, dehydrated, exhausted, but "extra stoked if I got one or two good shots from the day."
Challenges as small as a droplet of water on the camera lens to as big as too much sunlight blowing out the shot can turn a photo into a throwaway shot. Sometimes his camera is ripped out of his hands, and the leash that attaches it to his arm is shredded. In that case, he spends time swimming around looking for it. But he's yet to lose a camera. (He also makes sure his 10-pound camera doesn't knock him out either.)
Can photographing nature get dangerous, frightening?
It's not uncommon for Little to be scared, although he said he doesn't mind the fear and has had some close calls.
"I try to work with it," he said. "It helps me pay attention. It wakes up my senses and turns up spontaneity. When the waves are larger and I am swimming out there by myself, with only a pair of fins, the adrenaline and endorphins are pumping."
To stay fit for the ocean's strength, Little stays active during the summer. He jogs, weight-lifts, swims and works on his family's plumeria farm. The job is physically demanding, from reacting to pounding surf to fighting against currents.
Last year, Little's bestselling coffee table book "The Art of Waves" was published – it was a project he worked on during the pandemic, collecting over 15 years of wave and ocean photography (plus a foreword written by his friend and iconic surfer Kelly Slater.)
"All kind of new things come out when you stare at a photograph," Little said. "Even after shooting waves for 15 years, I still see something new."
How can travelers capture a good wave photo?
If you're hoping to capture nature's beauty on your next trip to the beach with your usual camera or smartphone, here are some photography tips from Little.
► The most important word of advice Little has is to enjoy shooting. "The key is to have fun," Little said. "Get into it. I think it shows in the final shots if you are pumped and have some passion going on."
► Make sure your lens is clear of water droplets, which can kill a shot. Special types of camera ports and your own saliva can help with this.
► "The beach and ocean have so many moods," Little said. "Get in touch with the mood of the day. Work with the conditions that nature gives you." A rainy or windy day doesn't mean a ruined photo – capturing the sand flying around may make for a winning image. "Trust me, you can get great shots in almost anything. Just start shooting. Then adjust and see where things go"
► Know your limits when it comes to the ocean. "I've seen too many people get into bad situations without expecting it or knowing it," Little said. "This includes people just standing on the beach a little too close to the shorebreak. Remember not to turn your back to the waves. Go to the beach with the highest respect for nature and its awesome power."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hawaii's most dangerous waves are caught by photographer Clark Little