Big Difference; When Everyone Else Was Switching To Digital, Andrew Kornylak Was Hauling Medium Format Up The Mountain

In most cases when we talk to climbers who photograph or photographers who climb, we start out by asking which came first, the climbing or the photography. About 75 percent answer the former. Then we ask why they climb. The answer is usually some variation of "it's a thrill." And then, why they photograph, which brings a variation of "to capture the thrill."

The first questions we had for Andrew Kornylak were different. "Why do you climb with those cameras?" we asked. Followed by, "And those lights?"

Andrew, you see, took medium format to the mountain. Several medium format cameras, actually. Over the years he toted a Rolleiflex 6x6 twin lens, a Mamiya 645, a Mamiya 7 II, and a Mamiya 645 AF.

All Photos © 2006, Andrew Kornylak/Aurora's Outdoor Collection, All Rights Reserved

And some major-league lighting. When handle- and shoe-mount strobes proved inadequate for the caves and big rock faces he wanted to light, he rented location kits--Lumedynes, Hensels, Comets, JTLs. Then he bought a 300 watt-second JTL monolight and a portable battery system. Then even more lights: White Lightning units and the Vagabond system that powers them. All told he was carrying about 120 lbs of gear stuffed into as many bags as it took to hold it all, with those bags packed into giant, expedition-style duffels from his climbing days. It took two or three trips, all by lifting power, to get the gear from the truck to the rock. "But if you've been climbing a long time," Andrew says, "chances are you're used to carrying a lot of junk out to remote places. I had the practice."

The lights we get, but medium format? Well, obviously for the larger chromes and negs they produce and the added detail they capture. But also for business; call it the larger presence they denote.

"I'd been experimenting with some medium format equipment, but was shooting almost all my climbing with 35mm," Andrew says. "It was the classic gear to use. Then one day I was shooting side by side with a well-known climbing photographer and I asked him if anyone shoots climbing with medium format. He said no, and I was surprised. I knew that fashion and wedding photographers used medium format to shoot people in motion, and I knew medium format creates different possibilities for framing, too. I got really excited about shooting medium format for climbing. It was part creative and part business--medium format was a way for me to differentiate myself in the marketplace." This was about the time that a lot of pro shooters were turning from 35mm to digital SLRs, and Andrew did get a digital SLR, but medium was the message he wanted to deliver to his clients.

"As soon as I started shooting medium format for the same stuff I shot with 35 and saw the huge negs and chromes, I was hooked," he says. "I shot prints and transparencies, and I set up to scan medium format." He usually sent clients the scans as previews and the originals for reproduction. "They saw the format," he says, "and the detail it provided. And they got more information to work with if they wanted to crop."

So, did medium format turn out to be a selling point for his photography? Yes and no. "In some cases it was," he says, "and in other cases the clients couldn't have cared less; they were much more interested in the subject than the format." Overall, though, he thinks it did help him stand out, at least to some of his clients.

About those standard questions, it turns out that Andrew is among the 25 percent. Photography was in his life before climbing, thanks to his father and grandfather, who were both amateur photographers. "I was used to seeing a lot of cool camera equipment around the house," he says. And thanks also to his older brother, who was a newspaper photographer for several years before giving it up for law school, a move that resulted in Andrew getting the world's best hand-me-down: his brother's pro camera. When an interest in climbing came along during Andrew's first year in college, it was natural for him to take cameras along. "When you climb and photograph, you always have good subject matter.

You're traveling to cool places and seeing neat things."

In 2001 Andrew gave up his career as a software engineer and turned to professional photography. "Software was pretty lucrative," he says, "so I gave it a lot of thought before taking the leap. But I was taking good shots, and through my climbing I knew the athletes and the industry in terms of who the clients were for climbing photographs."

Andrew's only half joking when he says the decision to go pro was riskier than the actual climbing and shooting. "I gave a seminar to a group of photo students," he said, "and I talked about the risks of going into adventure or climbing photography. In the midst of it, thinking I wanted to be a climbing photographer, I was thinking of pursuing the lifestyle of high-risk photography, but in hindsight I realize the risk was more in the business end of things."

In fact, Andrew says that photographing climbers is much less dangerous than climbing. "When you're photographing you're thinking mostly about safety," he says. "You're being very conservative because you're concentrating on the photography. The risk is greater for the climber. Believe me, I feel a lot safer hanging on a rope taking photos."

Currently most of Andrew's shooting is done with a digital SLR, but little else has changed. "I'm still choreographing my images," he says, and because the best shooting positions are almost invariably from an angle higher than the climber, and because he wants to feel secure enough to concentrate completely on shooting, he still sets out early, hauls his gear to the site, gets ahead of the climbers, finds the best angles, and carefully sets up his ropes. "Format is a choice," Andrew says. "Rigging is inevitable."

Note: Andrew's website,, features a variety of his outdoor, sports, adventure, and landscape images.