Mentor, Friend, Inspiration – Jon Cornforth

March 31, 2015  •  1 Comment

One of the things that I’m hoping to do with my new blog is help others to enjoy the beauty in nature that surrounds us. I’m going to write about the ways that I’ve been able to learn and the ways that other people inspire me both to enjoy what’s out there and to keep it that way (i.e. conservation).

My first post in my "Inspired By…" series is about Jon Cornforth (Cornforth Images). He's an amazing wildlife and nature photographer that I've had the pleasure of becoming friends with over the past 5 years. It all started when Paul and I were planning a family trip up to Alaska and I wanted to know a few things: where to go, what to shoot, and how to take better shots. I felt like I had a pretty good base and that I kind of knew my way around a camera (aperture, f-stops, etc.) but I really wanted to get to the next level…

How Did We Meet?

You may have guessed it. I searched the internet. I bounced around on different sites looking at photography expeditions and finally ended up at  I couldn't believe that he lived in Seattle (only 13 miles from where we live in Redmond). We started to go chat over email and ended up setting up some sessions where we'd met and just discuss gear, goals, and how I might get there. Then, Paul got interested (he couldn't resist geeky/technical discussions around gadgets and gear) and well, then he was hooked as well. But, he doesn't have the bug quite as badly as I do. He loves taking the images but the post-processing isn't his favorite. He will have a gallery up on BlueWaterImages at some point.

Gadget Geekiness

It was gadget geekiness love from the first meeting. What packs were best for carrying gear (Paul and I both have this one - Jon's favorite). What items are a must-have for shooting landscapes (fixed primes / tripods). What lenses are best for shooting wildlife (it really depends on what you're shooting so this one is more difficult). And wow, then I felt like I knew nothing again. And, an even bigger wow, what an investment it can be. But, what I have learned is that quality items will last you longer but you really have to be ready to commit. One tip though is that you can always rent and for a few trips I've found this to be fantastic. I've rented from LensRentals for trips to Haines as well as Svalbard and I've found it’s a great way to get the latest gear for items that I’m just not going to use all that often (like 400mm and 500mm telephoto lenses that are 10K+ to purchase).

My Favorite Tips From Jon

Only shoot RAW: This is so important. I’m so frustrated now when I go back and find an image I like only to find that I have nothing but a JPEG version of it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to make a ton of modifications to an image but a RAW image has so much more flexibility in lights / darks / shadows / color; it really allows you to bring out the best in your image. I won’t ever shoot JPEGs again – not if I want to do anything with the images.

Only shoot in manual mode: OK, sometimes aperture priority or shutter priority is acceptable but it's only when you shoot everything fully manually that you can setup for exactly the shot that you want. This takes time to get used to and it still frustrates me in some situations but it's what I use when targeting a high-quality shot.

Positioning: Be aware of more than just the subject; the background can make or break an image. Consider opening all the way up (a very low aperture) so that you can completely blur the background and then position yourself so that the subject is better isolated from the background.

Why Jon Inspires Me?

Jon has the utmost integrity in his images. A great image for Jon is created "in the field." He uses neutral density filters to help bring down the highlights in the sky while still allowing the proper exposure for the landscape. He doesn't believe in crops for more than leveling or just a few percent if there’s something along an edge that you don’t want. But, an image where you have to crop it down 75% from the original just isn't ever going to be a great image. It won’t print well and it wasn't really what you shot. He'd rather reposition, get a different lens, or just not shoot something if he can't get the highest of quality. OK, I’m not as hard-core here as I've cropped some images and just left it with "this can’t be printed really large" but, I certainly aspire to "get the shot" right in the field / camera. And, I agree that things like graduated neutral density filters are a great investment. 

Above all, he doesn't make significant modifications to his images. We were on a trip together where another photographer decided to replace the nictitating membrane in an eagle's eye with the eye from another shot. We agreed that that's no longer "an image," that’s a composite. And, if you’re going to tell people that – then, that's fine. But, don't claim that you got an amazing shot when you had to pull from multiple shots to do it and then use Photoshop to bring it all together. 

[Please don’t misunderstand here – there are some wonderful composites that have been created in Photoshop and they are ART. They can be breathtaking and that's fine. But, what bothers me is when viewers are led to believe that the photographer actually captured that image and not created it in Photoshop. There's no problem learning PS and becoming fluent in it (I wish I were). But, IMO, that's not the way to becoming a better photographer. Taking a better image in the first place is what a great photographer does (or, at least tries to do). It's not easy; and truly spectacular images are rarely captured solely by just pressing a button.]

Finally, don't get me wrong – everyone does some post-processing. And, if you're shooting RAW, you really need to do a bit of tweaking. And, Jon does use Photoshop. But, all of Jon's truly amazing images aren't composites created in Photoshop nor do they get a tremendous amount of tweaking. And, one of the things I also love is that in each of his posts on facebook (Cornforth Images on facebook), he states the camera / lens used and the tools he used for processing to create the final image. 

Where Have We Been together?

Haines, Alaska – November 2010

This was our first trip. Paul and I flew to Alaska, took the ferry three hours north to Haines and then proceeded to spend numerous days freezing our butts off (OK, that was mostly me – I’m a total WIMP in the cold; I think I wore 7+ layers). This was a fantastic learning experience for me. Each day, we went out just as the light was starting to come out and we stayed out until the light faded. We spent the evenings going over images. We micro-adjusted cameras. We had a few beers. I got some of the best images I’ve ever taken on this trip and certainly the best up to that point. I was hooked!

Haines, AlaskaMy favorite image from our trip to Haines, Alaska


Hokkaido and Nagano, Japan – February 2013

This trip wasn't directly organized by Jon but was one he was co-guiding with another pro photographer. We were able to see some amazing sights on this one but the wildlife wasn't quite full-on wild (mostly we visited known / popular [i.e. sometimes VERY crowded] viewing locations and places where animals were regularly fed). So, it wasn't Jon’s typical trip but it was still really interesting and we're glad we went (and, we met some AWESOME folks on this trip; people that we still talk to and plan other adventures with). And, it was still a photography-focused trip where we got to discuss what makes an image better than others and where we got to work on taking better images. On this trip, my favorite place to shoot was actually in Rausu where we headed out into the pack ice to watch Steller’s sea eagles grab fish from the local boats that fed them almost daily in the winter.

Steller's sea eagles at sunriseMy favorite image from our trip to Hokkaido, Japan


Juneau, Alaska – August 2014

For me, this was the ultimate trip. Jon had told me about bubble-net feeding years before and I was itching to go see it. I am still absolutely in LOVE with Jon’s image of bubble-net feeding taken at sunset (here). It was this image, and learning about the cooperative feeding technique that humpbacks perform, that completely hooked me; I had to see this. I had to experience it. And, sure enough – I got to do so on this trip. But, Paul didn't join us. He was not interested in spending nine days on a relatively small boat in possibly rough waters. And, yes, there were a couple of days that were miserable but that's why it was a nine day trip; Jon knew that the weather can be absolute crap and that having a few extra days is critical to give us the best opportunities for getting a few good images. For me, nine days cruising the inside passage with Jon and a few other photographers was amazing (note: I'm also leaving out that there were a couple of really rude photographers in the bunch that almost spoiled it for the rest of us… but, that's also something that can happen. Not everyone's going to love everyone, all the time).

Humpback whales bubble-net feedingHumpback Whales Breach and Bow 01Humpback whales bubble-net feeding - Chatham Strait / Inside Passage outside of Juneau, Alaska

Even better than unicorns and rainbows is a humpback with a rainbow. And, here we were placed perfectly by our guide to line up the whale and the rainbow. I still think people are going to think this is "shopped" (meaning Photoshop) but it's not. To prove it, I've uploaded the entire sequence (which I enjoy looking at - almost "in motion" if you click through them with a bit of speed). It's a funny story actually but I'll let Jon tell it. He did an interview where he talked about "the shot that got away." Check out his interview "
SIC 17 - Flying High in Hawaii."

Only performed by a small number of humpbacks, bubble-net feeding is a true joy to observe. One whale calls to the others and choreographs the dance to herd herring into a tight ball by blowing bubbles around them (effectively creating a "net" around the herring). Other whales use their pectoral fins ("pec flappers") to further scare the herring into an even tighter ball. When they're ready, the humpbacks swim through the center of the ball, gorging themselves and filling their food pouches on the bait ball. They filter the fish through their baleen plates and then erupt through the surface with an incredible display of strength and beauty.

I traveled to Juneau as part of an expedition guided by wildlife photographer Jon Cornforth. As a small group, we spent 9 days on a 42-foot Nordic Tug cruising the Inside Passage to find groups of humpbacks performing this cooperative feeding technique. Jon's skills and knowledge of the area gave us superb viewing and opportunities to witness this truly amazing sight.

For more information: Alaska Whale Foundation, humpback whale, Cornforth Photography Tours
But, back to photography. What an amazing trip. Oh, and then there was the that breach and the rainbow – wow. Talk about amazing setup and positioning by Jon (another HUGE thank you to Jon for this). I still wish that Jon had gotten that shot, but it does make for a [kind of] funny story. I'll let Jon tell that story here and that’s certainly one of my favorite images from the trip.

Our next planned trip is to Svalbard, Norway in August 2016: I’m organizing the trip and Jon's our photo pro. Our good friend Morten (a guide who Paul and I met in the Russian Far East in 2010 and who we first visited Svalbard with in 2012) is our local wildlife expert and we've reserved the whole boat. This is going to be an EPIC trip. We have a male-share cabin available as well as one double. Shoot me an email if you're interested.

Bringing It All Together

What Jon's really taught me is that getting a phenomenal image takes work, sometimes a lot of work (and time, and patience, and sometimes money too [to get there, to stay there for a few days when you get messed up by weather]). And, it's super easy to get a lot of not-so-great images too. But, that's part of the fun and the journey. And, it's part of learning. I look forward to a lot more of it… with Jon and friends I've met along the way. 

I can't even begin to thank Jon for all of the discussions about settings, about composure, and just generally getting “the” shot. If you're ever interested in immersing yourself in all things related to photography – you most definitely should book a trip with Jon. 

For me, Lily Tomlin’s words resonate well: The road to success is always under construction. 

Thanks for helping me pave the way Jon!


Jon Cornforth(non-registered)
It has been a pleasure to travel and photograph with you over the years. I am happy that we have been able to share so many wonderful memories and photo ops together. I look forward to traveling with you for many years to come. (And Paul, too.)
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