The Seattle area is a place overflowing with enthusiastic outdoor types. Occasionally you find one who has done things a little differently, and made a name for himself in the process.  Jon Cornforth is one such local. He is a true outdoorsman who has taken his love of nature and turned it into his job through the art of outdoor photography. I had the pleasure of meeting him and asking him a few questions about his outdoor experience, photography and how he has cut his own unique path to this dream of a career.

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USA, Washignton, North Cascades National Park, Whatcome Peak reflected in an alpine tarn at sunset from the Tapto Lakes area above Whatcom Pass

Seattle Backpacker Magazine: You are a wildlife and nature photographer. Were you a photographer first, or a nature enthusiast first? How did you decide that tying those 2 things together was the right path for you?

Jon Cornforth: I have always been a very active outdoors person. I grew up sailing with my family on the Great Lakes. My parents did not have a ton of money, but they still took me to visit the Canadian Rockies and Virgin Islands while I was in high school. I knew that my destiny was not in Michigan, so I went out west to go to college at the University of Arizona where I graduated with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. However, what I really learned in college was how to backpack and rock-climb. After graduating, I moved to Seattle to be closer to the Cascades and Canadian Rockies in order to further my mountaineering and ice-climbing ambitions. I climbed many famous mountains at this time including Mt Rainier, Mt Adams, Mt Baker, Eldorado Peak, Mt Temple, and Mt Athabasca. I spent my winters climbing frozen waterfalls and snowboarding. I eventually gave up climbing after I broke my ankle during a leader fall in 1999. About that time, I bought my first SLR camera and very quickly became over-infatuated with photography. After taking an extended trip to Hawaii and Southeast Asia in 2000 with my future wife, as well as my general inability to maintain full-time employment that involved being behind a desk, I naively jumped into representing myself as a professional photographer. Fortunately, it has worked out, as I have been working full-time for myself for almost 10 years. I love what I do, but it is virtually impossible to make taking pretty pictures into a viable business. I love the wilderness and prefer shooting  images in remote locations that few other photographers will ever be able to visit.

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USA, Washington, Juniper Dunes Wilderness, Sand dune patterns at sunset

SBM: You spend a couple weeks at a time out on location getting the perfect shot. Can you give us an idea of how you prepare for these expeditions? What gear do you always take?

JC: I have always been a minimalist. There is no point in carrying too much gear. If there is a photo that I am after that is within 3-4 miles of a trailhead, I will hike in to or out of the location in the dark so that I do not have to camp for the night. When I backpack, I carry a light weight down sleeping bag, a small pad, my 1 man tent, and a small stove. I usually do not carry any extra clothes and only a minimal amount of food. My camping equipment probably only weighs 20 lbs. However, my camera body, lenses, filters, and lightweight tripod all add up to at least another 20 lbs. If I am going to use my boat in Alaska, I bring not only my camera equipment and personal items, but also boat parts to repair or replace. Last year, I brought my 12′ inflatable and 15hp Honda engine back to Seattle for the winter. That weighed over 300 lbs! I’m still waiting for my friend in Anchorage to ship my stove/heater down to me that needs to be repaired. I disassembled it in September, but I need to get it fixed soon before I start using my boat again in May. As you can imagine, I am always trying to work out the logistics of my trips months in advance.

SBM: How do you manage the weight of your camping gear and photo gear for a longer trek? Sherpas or llamas?

JC: I do not really do long treks any more. The reason that I got into photography was because I love being outside. However, the reason that I now go backpacking is to create a specific image. The longest hikes that I have done in the last few years were 13 miles into the Tonquin Valley in Jasper National Park and 19 miles into Whatcom Pass in the North Cascades. Both of these hikes I did in 1 day. I don’t want to waste any photographic opportunities, so I get into an area as fast as I can. My upcoming January trip to Patagonia will involve several weeks of camping, but I have selected the shortest routes to get into the locations that I want to photograph. My longest hikes will only be 6-9 miles. As I previously mentioned, my personal gear is rather minimal, but my camera equipment is most of my weight. I will only go into locations for 3-5 days at a time, which does not require me to take that much food, which will be gone on the hike back out. I have not been to anywhere that required sherpas, and llamas seem very attractive for long distance trekking, but I’m going to stick with my 90hp engine on my boat as my answer.
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USA, Washington, North Cascades, Mt Shuksan at sunset from Artist’s Point

SBM: What is your single most memorable experience, being out in the wilderness with a camera?

JC: This question gets harder to answer each year the more places that I travel and unique images that I create. I always say that I would only photograph marine mammals, especially whales if I could afford it. They are the most amazing animals, but also the most difficult and expensive to photograph. This last summer, I spent 2 hours photographing a breaching humpback whale in Southeast Alaska from my inflatable with only my dad with me. That whale put on an amazing show and repeatedly swam underneath my small boat.

SBM: Your nature photos have been placed in some very exciting places like Alaska Airlines Magazine, Backpacker, and Outdoor Photographer. Where would you most like to see your photographs in the future?

JC: Now that I have established myself as a photographer, I would like to expand my work into more natural history magazines like National Geographic or Smithsonian. This is very difficult to do and I do not say this lightly, but I think that is what is required in order to take my work to the next level. There are a lot of well-known places that I would like to go in the world, but I think that my destiny lies in photographing seldom or rarely visited locations. The images that I create in these places seem to resonate with people and publishers. I like the National Parks, but the popular ones are way too busy for me, which is not why I go out into nature in the first place.
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USA, Washington, North Cascades NP, Mt Shuksan at sunrise with Mt Baker in the distance from the summit of Ruth Mt

SBM:Where are you planning to go next and what do you hope to capture?

JC: I am taking 2 repeat photography tour clients with me to Patagonia in January. This will be my 3rd time down south. I am really looking forward to revisiting Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and Torres del Paines National Park in Chile. I am then taking 2 clients to Death Valley in February, followed by a personal scuba-diving trip to Raja Ampat in Papua, Indonesia in March to work on a magazine article. I will be up in Alaska as much as possible between May-October. My business is going to be a mix of personal work combined with leading small group photography tours to unique locations. I have not yet put up a schedule for my 2011 tours, because I am most successful at working with private clients.

SBM: Thanks so much Jon. Best of luck in the coming year!

Jon is currently scheduling tours for 2011. If you are interested in a unique, personal photo tour, please visit his Tours page and contact him directly. See more of his images on his website at

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USA, Washington, White Bluffs Wilderness, Dramatic cliffs above the Columbia River at sunset

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