Wave Photography Legends, Shooting the Curl

Story by Richard Bilow / Cover photo of Clark Little by Dane Little

Ocean and wave photography has always been an obsession of mine. I see waves as the most beautiful expressions of nature’s majesty on earth. I love all aspects of nature, but I just can’t get enough of waves. They are like kinetic sculptures and never exactly the same. Each wave has its own unique qualities which go completely unseen and unnoticed by most people.

Wave Photography

Those of us who ride these waves understand each other when it comes to appreciating the aesthetic qualities of the ocean. Still, after a lifetime in the water none of us have ever seen all aspects of the waves, because much of their beauty is hidden from view. Plus, the way they look is different depending on where you view them from. I will always remember one particular wave I saw while looking south towards Point Dume from Westward Beach at Zuma. The way the sun illuminated this specific wave, with howling offshore winds blowing a massive rainbow-filled spray out towards the sea was mesmerizing. Several other surfers as well as bodyboarders saw what I saw, and a few of us howled at the sight.

“Vortex” Photo by Ben Thouard 

Thanks to the amazing photographs being created by today’s top ocean and surf photographers (building on the work of those who came before), we can now see many aspects of waves more clearly than ever before. Now, everyone can understand quite easily why some of us are so enthralled, just by clicking on Instagram and following guys like Ben Thouard @benthouard, Russell Ord@russellordphoto, and Clark Little@clarklittle, among others.

Ben Thouard

Ben Thouard has mastered the art of photographing waves while freediving, giving us a crystal clear view from the underwater perspective. As stunning as “Vortex” is, Ben’s portfolio is filled with shots that will blow you away. His home breaks are in Tahiti, where he shoots over coral reefs. When open ocean waves hit the coral reefs, the surface of the water pitches forward and a gorgeous cylinder known as the tube is formed. Ben positions himself at the edge of the vortex underwater and creates images that provide a perspective view you may never have seen before. He risks his life to achieve his unprecedented results. http://benthouard.com @benthouard on instagram.

I have personally been “shooting the curl” for over 40 years now, but most of this time has been while bodyboarding. For those who don’t know, shooting the curl is an old-school term used to describe getting inside the tube of a wave. It’s not an easy thing to do on a surfboard, but it is pretty easy on a bodyboard or while bodysurfing.

These days, shooting the curl means something different to me. Now I grab my camera when the waves are tubing and do my best to be in the perfect spot to capture the light, reflections, transparency, beauty and chaos, before I potentially pay a price for “going there.” Water shots have become a new way for me to play in the water, but the risks taken by the pros are off my radar completely. I never shoot from the water when the waves are pumping.

“Teeth” – Photo by Russell Ord

Russell Ord

The idea of getting anywhere near this wave makes me cringe. Everything about the image captivates me. Russell Ord has mastered the art of showing us the power and chaos of Australia’s meanest waves. He finds his own spots to shoot, and uses medium format cameras. Ord captures every little detail with visually stunning crystal clarity.

“Swimming out to sea, especially on your own, has a feeling of peace and serenity. Your senses are heightened, the feeling of water on the face chilling, a natural amphitheater of waves crashing and a camera encased in a water housing to capture the moment. The feelings are personal and difficult, if not impossible to replicate in a single image, but that’s what keeps drawing me back time and time again.” – Russell Ord

Russell’s “open edition” prints are quite affordable considering their exceptional quality and what it takes to capture and create them. Ord sells single edition prints. This makes it possible for you to own a shot that no one else will ever have. http://russellordphoto.com @russellordphoto on instagram

Clark Little

I personally never tire of looking at waves from in the water, on the shore, on the internet, in magazines, videos, movies or in galleries. When I first discovered the work of shorebreak photographer Clark Little, I wondered if they were real. The images were very different than what I had seen before. Clark was shooting shorebreak waves on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. He was positioning himself in extremely shallow water, at times literally lying on the sand, while allowing serious waves to break right over his body with his camera in hand. The idea of bringing a camera into these conditions seemed like a recipe for broken equipment and bodily harm. The result however was the creation of a signature style which catapulted Clark into the limelight and which inspired a new generation of ocean enthusiast to photograph waves.

Wave Photography
Photo by Dane Little; Clark Little positions himself to create an image for his newly released book “Clark Little: The Art of Waves” (2022, Ten Speed Press / Penguin Random House)

Clark’s photographs are often characterized by a kaleidoscope of colors. His photos capture the hues of the ocean. He also shoots sunsets as well as lush Hawaiian landscapes all in a single frame. The photographer does this from a perspective that forces Clark to be fully present in the moment as his shutter fires, memorializing his experience. What we see is about 1/2000 of a second of the artist’s life. Clarklittlephotography.com @clarklittle on instagram

Photographing the Shore Break

Today, the public interest in the photographic process of shooting the shore break has grown. Clark’s son Dane has begun documenting his dad’s sessions.“I’ve been shooting regularly with my dad since I was a kid. In these last two years I’ve gotten more serious, working on our “Doubles” technique, where I follow my Dad closely into the waves. We trust each other, which is key. It’s intense since we’re just a few feet away with large waves tossing us around, along with sand, shells, rocks and a 10 pound waterproof cameras all in the mix. It was great to see this shot selected for the back cover of dad’s new book. It made all those poundings worth it. 

Capturing the images in these artist’s portfolios required technical proficiency and involved substantial risk. Being in the perfect spot (or even in the water close to these waves) is not to be taken lightly. Getting thrown onto the sand or onto a coral reef can be tragic. Plus, strong currents can pull you into places you absolutely do not want to go. Try putting yourself in the perfect spot while controlling your camera settings in pumping waves, and you’re asking for trouble. The images I personally create do not require extreme risk, yet they are quite beautiful. You don’t have to set your goals super high and risk your well-being to enjoy yourself. Creating beautiful wave photos from in the water or from shore is possible without great risk.

Photo by Richard Bilow – a typical south swell with slight offshore winds at my home break. This allowed me to create this very nice shot with minimal risk


EatTravelGo advises our readers to exercise good judgement concerning the risks they take. Please take all precautions to be safe. Do not try to do what those mentioned here do. If however, you grew up swimming in gnarly waves and extreme ocean conditions, then you know how to be safe. We want you to return home from your travels with great memories and beautiful pictures but not broken bones. Getting a telephoto lens and shooting from shore is a good option. Or, pick up an AxisGo housing from AquaTech and bring your iPhone in the water. AquaTech.net@aquatech_imagingsolutions @AxisGo

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