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'Shooting the Curl' Gets a Whole New Meaning

It started with a photograph. It almost always does.

At the time he took it, Clark Little was a surfer and the supervisor of a botanical garden in Hawaii, not a photographer. But when his wife, Sandy, wanted a photo of the ocean for their bedroom wall, Clark, who'd surfed the shorebreak for years, had an idea. He said, "Don't buy one. I can go out there and do it."

The shorebreak.

Clark can talk about "taking off on the big, powerful waves, and pulling into the tubes and getting that vision of the barrel and the thrill and fascination of the colors and the light," but, really, words fail when surfers try to describe it. What they see from inside the curl of a wave about to slam down on the beach is unique, spectacular, frightening. And indescribable.

But with a camera, Clark could capture it. People would finally see what he saw. And so shorebreak photography became a consuming passion.

Shorebreak waves are exactly what you suppose they are: waves that break directly on the shore. They happen when swells meet obstructions or abrupt changes in bottom depth. When these waves break they release all their energy into shallow water. They're unpredictable and extremely dangerous, and it's not suggested that you go out to meet them for any reason whatsoever. Not even to take pictures. We're inviting admiration, not emulation.

Two years into taking shorebreak images, Clark resigned from his job and turned to photography full time.

"A lot of people who've never surfed or even gone into the ocean love these photographs," he says. "I'm happy to be able to share my love and passion for the beauty I see." He gets great satisfaction hearing from people who have been moved by his images.

"The whole thing is about getting into position. When a huge set's coming, maybe 12-feet high, I have to make a decision where I want to put myself to get the image. There's a thrill and little bit of fear. I'm knee deep, looking into this cave of water, trying to position my hand as steady and level as I can and then I'm hitting the trigger as the wave is getting close—sometimes 20, sometimes ten, sometimes five feet away, and I'm shooting from two to ten to 12 frames. If that wave's setting up perfectly to throw a beautiful curl, I'm holding the trigger with half fear and half excitement, just knowing I'm in the sweet spot. From surfing the shorebreak all these years, I take that experience and knowledge and put it into the barrel.

"And I kind of know where to sneak out of the way of the wave. There is an exit most of the time, but when I want to commit myself because the wave is really good and I want to get deeper to get a more dramatic view of the tube, I know sometimes I'm going to get toasted. There are times I get sucked over the falls, I get thrown on the beach. That's part of it.

"But I wouldn't be out there if I didn't love what I do."

A lot of people who've never surfed or even gone into the ocean love these photographs. I'm happy to be able to share my love and passion for the beauty I see.

The gear's going to get toasted, too.

"The camera takes a beating—I've had it rip out of my hands. I have it on a six-inch leash that's around my wrist, and the leash has been ripped in half. I've seen the camera getting thrown on the beach and pounded, and the housing is intact and the camera is still working. I'm putting that gear to the test in the most extreme shorebreaks in the world there on the north shore of Oahu."

Most of Clark's shorebreak photos are taken with a D300 and an AF DX Fisheye-NIKKOR 10.5mm f/2.8G ED encased in a custom White Water Hawaii underwater housing. His backups are a D3 and a D200 and an AF Fisheye-NIKKOR 16mm f/2.8D.

"I'm usually going at 200 ISO and 1/1000 second, shutter priority, with the focus preset and the lens taped into position. There's a spot on that 10.5 where the depth of field is from two, three, four feet to infinity. With the 16mm, I usually let it autofocus." The motor drive is set to high burst—nine frames per second on the D3, eight on the D300. With the camera preset and the lens taped, they go into the housing; the only control on the housing is the shutter release."

Clark doesn't look through the camera—there's just no time. It's level, aim, fire and duck. Clark doesn't wear a mask or a wetsuit; it's a bathing suit and swim fins—"and my fins are my lifeline."

Like most outdoor photographers, Clark takes advantage of the golden hours. "My favorite time is the morning—the light is powerful, it lights up the face of the waves. In the evening the wave is backlit, and I get those beautiful blues, greens and oranges."

His compositions—like a wave circling the sun or a landmark on the beach—are deliberate. "Do I get the sun in the curl? Guaranteed." There are some moments of luck, he admits, but most of it is experience, passion and dedication.

"It's always different," Clark says. "The light, the colors, the water, the sand and what happens to it—all of it changes. Mother Nature always has something different to deliver.

"And to be there to capture it—man, that's unreal."

There's an extensive collection of Clark's photographs at his website, along with details about his book, The Shorebreak Art of Clark Little.

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