Thursday 24 April 2014

A Snapshot of @JohnRathwell Photographer Extraordinaire in Action

If you look you will find interesting people all around you. One such person is John Rathwell, photographer extraordinaire. I can't remember how I saw John's twitter handle go by in my twitter feed. Maybe someone shared a picture that peaked my interest, since John's photos are often of  kayaking. This lead to a follow, and twitter conversations about Ottawa, photography, and his photos. 
One reason for my interest is my son is a skateboarder, snowboarder, and a photography and videography enthusiasts, and my brother in law is a paddler, and would be at minimum considered a semi-pro photographer since he doesn't actually make his living from it. John's photos of extreme sports, and action shots are fantastic. Then while watching the news, who do I see but John on  CTV News Ottawa,- Regional Contact - featuring John Rathwell. giving more insight into John the photographer and the person. I like that John is not only a phenomenal photographer, but also down to earth, and approachable. When I asked him to answer some questions for Cathy Thinking Out Loud he was more than happy to provide thoughtful answers, and participate. Below are John's answers to 8 questions I hope let you get to know John, and are helpful to a budding photography enthusiast.

When did you become interested in photography?
"I first got into photography in the summer of 2009. I was travelling across Canada, stopping at all the top kayaking locations our country has to offer. It was while I was in Fort Smith NWT that I picked up a friend's DSLR and snapped a couple of shots of him kayaking on the Slave River. I was suffering from a chronic shoulder injury at the time and could not paddle as often as I would have like to, so taking photos was the next best thing. After I left to head to Vancouver, and realized how much I enjoyed that time behind the camera, I called up a friend and asked to borrow some money to get a camera (and food, and gas, I was running low on funds at that point). I picked up my first DSLR, that was a Canon 50D with a couple of kit lenses."

Did you take photography classes in high school, college, university, or elsewhere?
"I am actually self taught. I went to school for cartography (map making) in which I studied design and colour theories, which definitely play a role in photography. When I was first getting into it, it was just a lot of trial and error, and reading books. One book that heavily influenced me was Syl Arena's "Speedliter's Handbook". The book is what hooked me on using flashes to light scenes. I also have to give Blair Gable Facebook a huge amount of credit for where I am today. He took me under his wing once I arrived back in Ottawa and taught me a lot of what I know today. Thanks Blair!"

Did you plan on photography as a profession, or did it happen gradually, and when did photography become a full time occupation?
"Photography was never the plan. It just kind of happened. All of a sudden my images were showing up in the top kayaking magazines around the world, and cheques would show up in the mailbox afterwards. I feel as if photography found me, more than I found it. Once I realized that this could become a potential career I buckled down hard and became focused on becoming one of the top kayaking photographers. I did keep a part-time job in my back pocket as a bit of a safety net until 2013, when I was just getting too much photography work to keep the position."

I noticed you take many shots at events for action sports like kayaking and skateboarding. Is that the only type of photography, or area you work in?
"I focus very heavily on action sports photography. I believe that to become a successful photographer you must master a small niche instead of trying to be a jack of all trades. If you take a look at photographers around the world who are successful that is what they do. When I started all I shot was whitewater kayaking. After that, I branched out into other action sports. That being said, I do enjoy shooting concerts, weddings, portraits and events. I find that shooting subjects outside of my comfort zone helps me learn new techniques and gives me new perspectives, which I in turn can take back and apply to shooting action sports."

I know you used to kayak or "paddle", do you still kayak? If not, is getting the shot and photographing it as exciting?
"I do still try to kayak as much as possible, although it has gotten tougher with my busy shooting schedule. One lucky perk to my job is that typically when I am shooting kayaking it requires me to kayak down the rivers with the athletes to get to the spot we are going to shoot at. I try to spend enough time in my boat to keep my skills sharp enough to keep up with the athletes. Simply being able to get to places that other photographers cannot has been a huge advantage to me when it comes to getting a job. 
I find kayaking and photography both as exciting, but in a totally different way. Kayaking is intense and gets my heart beating fast, while shooting is very Zen and relaxing to me. I do get a huge adrenaline rush from both running a big rapid and nailing the perfect shot though."

Do you teach any photography classes or workshops? 
"I have spent some time teaching adventure photography at Algonquin College and done a few workshops here and there. It is something I really enjoy, as watching people develop their photography skills is pretty amazing. I hope to do more clinics in the upcoming years, but for now I prefer to concentrate on the project at hand, and delivering the best possible product for my clients."

Do you have any advise for someone just getting into photography? Maybe something you wish someone had told you about? (Setting up a shot, lighting, focus, etc)
"Great question! Just the other day I said to a friend, "I could write a book on all the things people didn't tell me about starting your own photography business." My first suggestion as I mentioned above is to become one of the best at a small niche whether it be babies, food, or kayaking, like I did. Master that niche and learn the ins and outs, and everything about it. Make sure you are passionate about that niche as you will be living every aspect of it. Don't try to shoot everything at a mediocre level. Shoot one thing at the top level."

What is the one (or two) must have pieces of equipment you feel are worth the investment for someone starting out, but with a serious interest in photography?
"A lot of people say "it's not about the gear, it's about having the eye", which I don't fully agree with. You still need the right gear for the job. For anyone looking to shoot action sports or anything outside, having weather sealed bodies and lenses are key. I personally use the Canon 5D MarkIII, with L series lenses, which can take a good soaking when they need to. Some of the best pictures are made during adverse weather, and if you can't get your camera out in the rain or heavy snow you are never going to make that shot. Also key for almost every aspect of photography now is using small off camera flashes. They have so many advantages that you can't afford to not own a couple and know how to use them. I just had a giveaway for a LumoPro LP180 Flash on John Rathwell Photography Facebook Page." 

Is there anything you would like to add? Maybe what your favourite shot is of, and why it is meaningful to you.
"One of my favourite shots would have to be one I took recently in Veracruz Mexico, while on commission with Red Bull for the First Descent Michoacan project. First Descent Michoacan - Mexico - Red Bull - John Rathwell. When I first arrived at the base of the falls, after a long hike it was terribly back kit and pretty much unshootable. The athletes had to repel down a 60 foot cliff to access the top of the falls. As they had just finished repelling the evening light started to hit the water particles in the air and created an amazing warm yellow streak in the top left corner. I had never seen anything like this before. I started yelling at the athletes frantically, to run the waterfall. The light lasted a short time and just after the first athlete ran the drop the light was gone. Read more about the shot at Canoe Kayak .com Behind the Lens - John Rathwell." 

John thank you so much for taking the time to share you thoughts and photographs with me and my readers. It is great to get to know you better, and to get some tips and advise from a pro. Be sure to check out John's website John Rathwell Photography his blog John Rathwell Blog- What's Been Happening and follow John Rathwell on Twitter.

Yep, just me Cathy thinking out loud with, and about John Rathwell, photographer extraordinaire.

Note: I have not been compensated in any way for this post. All opinions are my own, and the purpose of this post is merely to feature someone I think my readers might enjoy reading about.
 © John Rathwell/Red Bull Content Pool OR © John Rathwell 


  1. Amazing photography! Thanks so much for sharing Cathy!

    1. It is amazing isn't. Makes you feel like you are in the middle of the action!

  2. Thank you for sharing Cathy! The photos are breathtaking!

    1. Thanks Ann, I agree his photos are fantastic!

  3. Such talent to capture events in motion. When I try it looks like a blob just flew by. Thanks for sharing a great Canadian with us.

    Besos, Sarah
    Blogger at Journeys of The Zoo