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I was blown away the first time I saw Jon Cornforth’s images. Even more so because many of the images were taken in my native Washington State. While we have many talented photographers in our fine state, I was also impressed with how personable Jon was on Twitter and when I subsequently emailed him to ask if he’d like to be interviewed for DPS. His images have been featured on covers of Backpacker, Outdoor Photographer, Alaska Airlines Magazine and he has won numerous awards for his stunning photography. I wanted to interview Jon to see what insights he had to help those considering following his footsteps into the awe inspiring world of nature photography.
I bought my first SLR ten years ago to take on mountaineering trip as well as an extended backpacking holiday through Southeast Asia. I have always been very connected to the outdoors, from growing up sailing to backpacking & rock-climbing in college. I became hooked on photography once I started shooting with a real camera rather than disposable or point & shoot cameras.
Fortunately, I was not addicted to a high income or a particular career path when I naively decided to make photography my career. My wife was supportive of my initial ambitions, but it took several years until I started making any money at it. After 9 years as a professional photographer, I now make a modest living.
I found initial success working with several art galleries in Washington & Hawaii, as well as selling prints at prominent juried art festivals. Those sales started to dry up for me a few years ago as the housing market declined. I was also advised early on by several pros that I became friends with that stock agency income was evaporating, so the only way to make any money licensing images was by doing it myself. I realized that I needed to adapt to the new reality, so I built my website to be search engine optimized (SEO). I have also started taking clients on photography tours. I have zero interest in taking 6-12 photographers to popular National Park viewpoints, so most of my tours are on a custom/private basis.
Admittedly, social networking has been a huge benefit for my business. I was caught off-guard by it and it certainly does not come naturally to most people. I started using Twitter 18 months ago, adapted my previous blog to a custom WordPress site 14 months ago, then reluctantly joined Facebook 12 months ago, Flickr 10 months ago, and only recently started using YouTube. I can not definitively state that when I do X online that I then make Y amount of money, but overall my social networking has helped my reputation grow into a highly regarded and recognized natural history photographer.
Do not even begin to think that you can quit a high earning job and make a comparable amount of money shooting nature photography. There is a reason that a lot of photographers are retired. You need to be able to pay your bills. I am very careful about how I spend money on my trips. I hardly ever pay for a hotel, but instead camp wherever I travel. I recently flew to Iceland and spent 15 days shooting, but only spent $1921 including my airfare, but that was still a big indulgence for me. I have a small boat in Alaska that is a major investment, but it has allowed me to shoot things that otherwise would have been impossible. Ultimately, you have to treat your photography as a business in order to make a living.
I want to thank Jon for taking the time in-between trips to Alaska to answer my questions. More of his fine work can be spied on his site, Cornforth Images, and he can be followed on Twitter as @cornforthimages. And if you’re intersted in traveling with Jon and learning a thing or two, he’s heading back to Alaska in early September then off to Patagonia in January.