PHOTOGRAPHER: Jonathan Irish
BASED IN: Washington D.C., USA
KNOWN FOR: Wildlife photography and travel photography from exotic corners of the globe
SHOOTS WITH: FUJIFILM GFX 50S Camera, X-T2 Camera, FUJINON GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR Lens, XF10-24mmF4 R OIS Lens, XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR Lens
Jonathan Irish is known for globe-trotting photography that documents the lives of human and animal societies in the farthest reaches of the planet. His images are vibrant and compelling, inspiring wanderlust in just about anyone who sees them. But becoming an accomplished photographer in so many genres doesn’t happen overnight. In this Interview blog post, we talk to Jonathan specifically about his wildlife photography and ask him what advice he can offer to budding photographers hoping to follow in his intrepid footsteps.
What is your favorite animal to photograph to date?
That’s a tough question because there are so many incredible wildlife subjects. But if I had to pick one, I would have to say the grizzly bears of Alaska probably top the list. Just being in their presence feels like a special honor. And to capture them in their natural habitat is a thrill every time. I love the big cats of Africa and India too, but the grizzly bears have stolen my heart.
Why did you switch to FUJIFILM?
I travel a lot and often to remote places. I got tired of carrying around so much gear in my backpack and was looking for an alternative to the big DSLRs. However, I didn’t want to sacrifice image quality in the slightest. I picked up a FUJIFILM camera and it was love at first snap. I expected great image quality in a lighter package, and I got that with FUJIFILM.
The real surprise was how user-friendly and intuitive the cameras are. To have all the necessary buttons and dials at your fingertips is such a nice way to shoot. I can honestly say it has made me a better photographer.
With the FUJIFILM X Series and GFX system, is there a noticeable difference in your workflow while shooting or in post?
I do notice a significant difference in my shooting style with FUJIFILM kit. When I was shooting DSLRs, I would often have to take my face away from the viewfinder to change settings such as ISO and focus area. This distraction would often be enough to make me miss a great photo. With the FUJIFILM system, everything I need to change is at my fingertips and I never need to take my concentration away from what I am shooting. In the end, this lack of distraction results in better images.
Have you had any memorable encounters with members of the animal kingdom?
I have so many favorite shots for different reasons, and I could never pick one. One of my favorite encounters was with a friendly red fox in Alaska, who was just as curious of me as I was of him. I laid down on the ground and he kept coming closer and closer until we were just a few feet from each other. He then laid down and started to sleep right next to me. It felt like we were old friends seeing each other again after a long absence. I also got great photos!
I also love the grizzly photo I took of a swimming bear, as it was such an odd sight. Of course, we know that bears swim, but to see this big grizzly in the middle of the lake, at least a half mile from the shore, was incredible.
What is the furthest you’ve traveled to photograph wildlife?
I’ve been all over the world, but probably my favorite wildlife destination is Antarctica and South Georgia island, near the Antarctic peninsula. The many different species of penguins down there are just incredible. Antarctica feels like the land before time and man changed it. I am headed down to Antarctica again soon and I am giddy with excitement to be back there.
What was your most challenging situation while photographing wildlife and how did you overcome it?
I think our natural fears of the unknown can be a good thing but also a limiting factor in getting great shots. I remember the first time I was on foot and close to a several thousand-pound adult male grizzly. It was thrilling, but also very scary. I had to overcome the fear that was starting to consume me.
After a while, you learn the bears’ behavior and warning signs, which helps you start to get comfortable being near such awesome predators. I still hold on to that fear – it’s healthy and it keeps me sharp. However, I am not as afraid to push my own boundaries as I used to be. Notice that I didn’t say “push the bear’s boundaries” as that is something we should never do. But our own boundaries? Yeah, I try to push those often.
What is an essential tip or piece of advice you feel fellow aspiring wildlife photographers need to know?
Preparation and patience. The longer I shoot wildlife, the more I realize that good things come to those who prepare and then wait. Yeah, there are times where you will get lucky with an awesome shot when the subject just stumbles into view and you are ready to capture it. But more often than not, great shots come from careful preparation and great patience. You need to know where your subjects tend to congregate. You should understand the lighting you want for your image and time your shoot accordingly.
Some people think great shots are serendipitous, but I think they would be greatly surprised at how much actual preparation and patience went into them.
In your opinion, how do you establish a unique style when photographing wildlife?
I’ve always benefited greatly from two things: shooting lots of images and having a mentor.
I shoot a lot and the more I shoot, the more I hone my style. It takes a lot of time to develop a style, and it is not something that can be done on your couch. You really need to get out there and practice.
Once you have a set of images you are proud of, then it is important to get feedback from a photographer, or photographers, that you respect. Feedback is so critical, as it often highlights things that you are too close to see, or are too emotionally invested to recognize.
Constructive criticism can shed light on the things you miss, helping you to do it differently next time. That is how I’ve been able to grow greatly as a photographer, and how I’ve helped others to grow as well. Don’t forget to pay it forward!
If you could go back to your early days as a pro and do something different, what would it be?
I think I would tell myself to stop worrying about who to shoot for and just concentrate on doing my best work. I think young photographers get stuck chasing things. Chasing the next gear, chasing the best client, chasing the newest editing app. These are all part of our professional knowledge base, but they do not lead to the one thing that should always be first and foremost in a creative person’s mind: doing your very best work.
If you focus on that, everything else tends to fall into place. Today, I get emails and messages from so many young and inspired photographers who want to know how to shoot for National Geographic, or some other popular organization. My feeling is that the question is the wrong one to ask. My answer is always the same: don’t worry about who to shoot for, just worry about developing your own style and creating your best work.
I believe that the young photographers asking, “How can I do my best work?” rather than “How can I work for National Geographic?” will, ironically, be the ones that end up working for organizations like National Geographic.
Jonathan Irish is a compensated FUJIFILM X-Photographer.
To explore the full X Series lineup visit X Gear Chooser.