Focus on Fujifilm • Jonathan Irish

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Jonathan Irish is a professional outdoor, adventure, and travel photographer based in Washington, DC and represented by National Geographic Creative. He specializes in shooting active/adventure lifestyles, landscapes, and cultures abroad. Clients worldwide, including National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, BBC, CNN, and many others, have published his work. Jonathan is a proud FujiFilm X-Series photographer, and is also a board member of the American Society of Picture Professionals (ASPP), DC-South Chapter

What is your favorite animal to photograph to date?

That’s a tough question because there are SO many incredible wildlife subjects. But, I would have to say the grizzly bears of Alaska. Just being in their presence feels like a special honor and capturing them in their domain is something of which I could never tire. I love the big cats of Africa and India too, but the grizzly bears have stolen my heart.


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Why did you switch to Fujifilm?

I travel a lot, 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, but one that wouldn’t 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 in spades with Fujifilm, but what was a nice surprise was how user-friendly the ergonomics were. To have all the necessary buttons and dials at your fingertips is such a nice way to shoot and I can honestly say it has made me a better photographer.

Is there a noticeable difference in your workflow (field and post) using the Fujifilm system?

I notice a significant difference in my shooting style in the field. When I was shooting with 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. For me, this lack of distraction results in better images.

What is your favorite wildlife image to date and why?

I have so many favorite shots for different reasons, that I could never pick just 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 – and it gave me some 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 any shore) was incredible. I could go on and on about favorite shots, but I don’t have just one, as all wildlife encounters have their own unique feelings I associate with them.

What is the furthest you’ve travelled 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 this upcoming January 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 land (not in a car) and close to a several-thousand-pound adult male grizzly. It was thrilling, but also very scary. I had to overcome the overactive fear that was starting to consume me but, after a while, you learn the bears’ behavior and warning signs and you start to get comfortable being near such awesome predators. I still hold on to that healthy fear, as it keeps me sharp, but I am also not as afraid to push my own boundaries as I used to be. Notice that I didn’t say “push the bears 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 that just stumbles into view when you are prepared to capture it but, more often, great shots come from preparation and patience: knowing where wildlife tends to congregate, knowing the lighting situation you are wanting to shoot in - and being there when these elements come together. I think a lot of people assume great shots are usually 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 benefitted greatly from two things: 1) lots of shooting and 2) having a mentor. I shoot a lot and, the more I shoot, the more I hone in on my style. It takes a lot of time to develop your eye and style and it is not something that can be done on your couch. You really need to get out there and “see” for yourself. Once you have a set of images you are proud of, then it is important to get feedback from someone (or several photographers) that you respect. Feedback is so critical, as they oftentimes point out things that you are too close to see, or might have an emotional interest in that is keeping you from seeing a flaw. Likewise, they might shed light on something you missed and how you might think about doing it differently next time. That is how I’ve been able to grow greatly as a photographer and how I’ve helped others 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. Young photographers get stuck in many traps: the next gear, the best client, 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’s mind: doing your very best work. If you focus on that, everything else tends to fall into place. Nowadays, I get emails and messages from many young and inspired photographers who want to know how to shoot for Nat Geo (or some other popular organization). My feeling is that this question is always the wrong one to ask - and 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. The young photographers asking, “How can I do my best work?’ rather than “How can I work for Nat Geo?” will, ironically, be the ones that end up working for organizations like National Geographic.

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