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An Interview With Landscape And Wildlife Photographer Jon Cornforth

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It gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Jon Cornforth, an outstanding wildlife and landscape photographer based in Seattle, Washington, USA. Jon's photos have graced the cover of numerous magazines including Alaska Air Magazine, Outdoor Photographer and Backpacker.

A lover of the natural world, Jon's subjects range from eagles to polar bears in the arctic to life under the sea. More of his photos and a list of upcoming tours can be found on his website, Cornforth Images. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Google+.

QHow long have you been shooting pro?

The last job that I had working for anyone else was in June of 2001. So that makes it 11 years.

QWhere did you transition from?

My degree is in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. I did not use that degree all that much after I graduated from the University of Arizona. I bounced around in various engineering, computer consulting and rock climbing instructing jobs for about five, six years before I realized I was going to give photography a go.

QHow did you make that transition?

I always tell everybody I kind of blindly and naively did that in my late 20s. I didn't have the obligations I have at this point. I had some initial successes that kind of drove me into thinking that I could publish and make a living at this and that's where I say naively. But I also had certainly a lot of support from my wife. She was very supportive at first and I kept my costs down really low and the little bit of money that I contributed certainly was pretty minor for a few years and things just started to grow from there.

QYou are a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer. And I noticed you have posted articles and have done reviews for f-Stop gear's bags and such. How did you land that job?

I've had a lot of support from Outdoor Photographer over the last few years. An interesting note on that is, I started out in photography ten, eleven years ago, and again, I always use this word naively and I think that a lot of people should pay a lot of attention when I use that word. Because I was bright eyed and bushy tailed and I think that a lot of young photographers are similar. But you know, this is a very, very, very hard business to make any kind of money in. I am constantly struggling and having to reinvent myself. I definitely want to stress that.

Back to the Outdoor Photographer thing: seven or eight or nine years ago, not too long after I began shooting, maybe I had a few pictures that maybe at this point in time I would still consider showing people. Very early in my career, at that point I sent an email to Outdoor Photographer and Rob Shepard was the editor at that point, and I will tell you, to this day his rejection email that he sent me back was the most stinging thing that I have ever received from any publisher or client.

It was ruthless how mean he was to me. He was just like, "we don't have time to be taking emails and looking at pictures from people like you. We get thousands and thousands of these." You know? "Go find somebody else to bother."

I was just shocked, right? I was just trying to be polite and professional but, you know, to this day, that one still sits with me because that is the rudest thing I've ever gotten back from any body. So, for a number of years I didn't even try working with them again. And then sent them another disc with images five or six years ago maybe and that sat around and languished for maybe a few years.

Then all of a sudden one day the new editor, Chris Robinson, contacted me and he was interested in using some of my images in the magazine and on the cover and next thing you know he was really supportive of my work and asked me to write with the blog that they have. Most recently, after a couple of articles, this past winter he asked me to be a contributing editor for them.

The moral of that whole story is that, you know, you have to have a lot of thick skin in this business. Any business is going to have ups and downs and a lot of rejection and if you persevere sometimes things might work out in your favor.

QThe main difference is just the change in editors and who you were working with?

Yeah that can make a big difference. One of my really good clients over the years has been Holland America. I've sold them a lot of Alaska photos for their brochures and such. The consultant who was there part time who was in charge of their photo editing, like, she'd gotten lost. I've sent her emails in the last year and I've had lunch with her like a year or two ago but then I haven't heard back from her since. So I haven't sold Holland America any pictures this year.

Just because you have one client and someone is working out, you have to stay in their good graces and hope someone doesn't move on or switch careers on you.

QYou shoot mainly wildlife and landscape. Is that a fair assessment?

Yeah, yeah. I think people who are most familiar with my work originally as a landscape focused photographer. But I've always had this ambition to photograph wildlife as well as underwater.

Over the years, I've also said that if I had to pick one particular emphasis for my photography, if money was not a problem and business was going to justify it, it would be more for the marine and the underwater photography. Certainly a lot of people have told me over the years my humpback whale images they consider to be among my best work that I've done.

I've probably spent 9 months photographing humpback whales in the last 10 years for the handful of images that I have. It's just something you have to put in a lot of time for. But this has allowed me the opportunity now that I'm leading that trip [to Alaska and Tonga] this summer that's been filled up for a year now.

I'm starting to branch out a bit into more underwater focused trips. A lot of the things that I'm planning in the next year are things to go, like, on a shark diving trip in the Bahamas next January, SCUBA diving in Fiji next Spring.

Tony Wu, one of my partners, and I have sold out and have a waitlist now for people to go see beluga whales in the Canadian arctic with us in July of 2013. We're still adding people if anyone is interested in that trip.

I'm not talking so much about photographing wildflowers at Mt. Rainier or going backpacking in Patagonia as much as I am about these kind of really high-end specific trips for marine mammals or sharks... big predators and stuff in the ocean. It's been a big struggle to make all that happen.

QSwitching gears a little bit, tell me about the gear you use.

I have been a Canon shooter since Day 1. The first real camera that I bought was Canon Rebel 2000. That was a camera that I took on a trip to Southeast Asia and Hawaii with my wife right after she graduated from University.

We were kinda young and carefree, and when I came back from that trip I became much more motivated about photography. But I didn't have any big decision that I made at that point between Canon and Nikon, I just bought Canon because it seemed like something I was familiar with.

Since then, I have also shot large format and medium format for landscape photography for a number of years, but for the last three and a half years all of my work has been done digitally. As the cameras have evolved and gotten better, I currently have two of the new Canon 5D Mark IIIs and then I also still have my Canon 7D that I use for more wildlife photography because of the faster speed. I borrow and rent a 1D Mark IV from time to time for some of the trips that I do.

It might sound funny to people but I'm really excited about my two newest cameras which are Canon Rebel T2is. They are a couple of years old, but the sensor is the same sensor that is in my 7D, so I'm pretty comfortable with the image quality.

I'm going to be doing some work this year using a kite to lift the camera into the air to do aerial photography. That was one of the reasons I bought these two used, refurbished T2is because I wanted to get some cameras, because if a $400 or $500 camera crashes, I'm not going to be happy but that's a lot better than destroying a $3,500 camera.

QWhat do you use for a dive housing for your cameras?

I originally bought an Ikelite housing for that first Canon Rebel  I had 11 years ago. So I've been with Ikelite for a long time and they've also become one of my sponsors. I do a lot of really impressive work I think, and people agree with me, using Ikelite and I know a lot of people in the underwater techno-gear community kind of poo-poo Ikelite, but the stuff works and it's great.

And you can't beat the price. I mean, I know people who complain not wanting to buy new cameras or upgrade their cameras because they can't afford to upgrade their $4000 or $5000 housing. For me, it's the turn around now for a new camera being brought to market, like the 5D Mark III, and then being able to have an Ikelite housing for it two months later? That is pretty amazing.

I also started doing some surf photography this last winter and I use an Aquatech surf housing for that. It has a lot of different attachments for it, so I can do some interesting remote work with it or use pole cams. So it's a little more versatile for surface work than the Ikelite housing.

QI remember seeing some of your first tests when you were in Hawaii of attempting close-in surf shots and I remember you commenting on the pummeling.

I've boogie boarded and body surfed a little in my lifetime, but I certainly wouldn't call myself a surfer. But, being able to get in the middle of those tubes, you don't need something huge. We're not talking about big wave surfing on the North Shore of Oahu or Jaws or something on Maui.

You just need some kind of shore-break that's got a barrel forming. The waves can be anywhere from, they're probably only three to four feet in diameter, maybe six feet in diameter once the wave kicks over.

You're basically in pretty shallow waters and you're standing, waiting for this wave to come over the top of you. And you've got to be able to dive underneath it while lifting your arm up with the camera into the tube, so you're not looking through the camera as you're taking these pictures.

You've just got your arm up in the tube as you're diving underneath. If you time it wrong, you end up getting picked up and swept over and slammed into the surf or the ground or whatever with the tube. That happened a couple of times to me where I smashed my camera into my shoulder or bent my back in half.

I really got more careful with the timing of how you're supposed to go underneath the wave rather than into it.

QSo in that case kite photography probably looks more relaxing?

You should see this kite I got. This thing is like six feet by eight feet, and then on a moderately windy day here in Seattle I have to tie it off to a post or something at the park. I am trying to figure out a system to. I have a climbing harness now and I'm trying to clip it onto my waist, and you've got all this equipment that you're trying to attach to the line as you let it out.

It's pretty involved! And I'm pretty scared because some of these places I'm thinking of taking this, I think what do I do when there aren't trees to anchor it to or what do I do if there is wildlife underneath it that I'm trying to photograph. I don't want the camera to come down on top of the animal or colonies.

It's definitely going to be some very interesting pictures if I can make this all work.

QHow much time do you spend each year traveling?

I usually answer that by saying I'm gone half the year. Last year when I looked at it, I was gone over half the year from Seattle but then out of that time it was like 35% of the year I was gone from Seattle and my family shooting and there was like 15% of my time I was doing some trips with my family with me.

QYou spend about three weeks in Alaska shooting humpback whales and I'm curious to know, does it take you about a week to get one stellar shot? Or how long does it take on average?

Well, here's a good analogy for you. When I was up in Seward Alaska in May trying to photograph orcas for about two weeks, one of the last days I was on the water, we saw humpback whales occasionally but as I was coming back into Seward on the last day this enormous humpback launched out of the water, did this beautiful full body breach with a twist in it!

It was a couple hundred yards, maybe a quarter mile in front of me as I was going, so I sped up to try to get up there and we saw it breach two, three, four more times.

We got into position. We're just waiting and hoping that it was going to swim by. And then it breached again, but it had gone further out. We didn't get a picture, but I saw that whale breach probably six or seven times, but that first time was a really amazing breach.

So it brought up a conversation with my friends that were with me and they know I have all these breaching pictures. I was like, "Well, if I think of how many breaches I've seen between Alaska, Hawaii and Mexico in my whale photography in the last decade, I've probably seen somewhere between three and five hundred breaches."

Out of that, I've probably only gotten photos of two dozen breaches. So less than one in ten breaches that you're going to see that you might even be able to get a photo of. And realistically it's more like 1 in 100 breaches that you see is really a useful, publishable image. I don't say that to discourage anyone but to be realistic. Certainly I've seen people have amazing breaches who went on the right day and got lucky.

QHow can people join you on one of your shoots?

I'm not doing a ton of trips each year, but the trips I am offering are increasingly focused on very interesting, unique experiences with wildlife. And a lot of that being below water.

For example, in 2013 I have a trip scheduled with Jeremy Woodhouse, who's a really well known photographer from Texas by way of South Africa. And Jeremy and I are currently taking six clients to go to Japan next February/March to photograph Japan's winter wildlife, including eagles and cranes as well as the famous snow monkeys.

We have six people signed up for that and we'd like to get two more to take eight people between four guides.

I want to thank Jon for taking the time while he was actually home for a few hours to answer my questions and provide you with some insight into the life of a professional photographer who is always on the move.

If you would like to learn more about Jon's tour offerings, you can find them on his website.

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