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Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Ian Plant’s landscapes aren’t abstracts and they aren’t entirely literal. Plant uses uniquely photographic techniques and tools to transform the scene, and his images end up going far beyond a documentary shot.

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“Alien Transmission.” The twisted landscape outside of Page, Ariz.

ALL IMAGES: Canon EOS 5D Mark II; Ocotillo Stars, Storm’s Eye, Primordial Night, Alien Transmission: Nikon 14-24mm lens with custom adapter; Dreamscape, Desert Garden: Canon 90mm tilt-shift lens; Primordial Night: Reis wooden tripod, Bogen 405 Pro Digital Geared Head; All others: Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-25 ballhead
“So much time is invested in getting a shot,” Plant elaborates. “You have to scout for a location that looks ‘night promising,’ then you have to be at the spot at sunset, then wait for the light in the sky to disappear, then spend an hour or more taking the shot and then hike back to your car or campsite. It’s a huge amount of time and effort, making it especially painful if the shot doesn’t turn out to your liking. To make the most out of your investment, it pays to think critically when selecting a night scene. I look for scenes with interesting landforms that rise up into the sky and for landscapes with a certain graphic simplicity to them. With the ability to selectively light a scene, sometimes you can get away with shooting a chaotic landscape simply by leaving unnecessary or confusing parts of the scene in darkness.”

Adds Plant, “It’s also important to think about movement over time. If you have moving elements in your scene, such as clouds, water or even stars, think about where they will move and how quickly. Clouds, for example, can take several minutes to streak across an image frame, so if clouds are part of a shot, the exposure time should be timed accordingly. Of course, not all of my night work is done in total darkness. Often, I’m working on the ‘edge of light’ during twilight. Having some ambient light in the sky helps open up different creative opportunities than when working in total darkness. Often, you can mix the two aspects of photography, as, at twilight, many parts of the landscape may be in deep shadow, allowing for creative lighting effects to be mixed with ambient light in the sky.”

One technique Plant doesn’t lean on is generating special effects in the computer. Saturation and contrast changes are standard operating procedure, but he’s not looking to make images with no ties to the landscape. Any surrealism is a function of the scene, not independent of it.

“As important as color is to my work,” he explains, “it’s more important to me that the color and the ‘dreamy’ look are real, not artificially created by the computer. I achieve the dreamy look in the image-capture process by using composition creatively, waiting for unusual convergences in nature, experimenting with long exposures and shooting at the very edge of light. Atmospherics, such as fog or storm clouds, can add a lot to the mood of an image. Colors revealed during long exposures at twilight can be otherworldly, especially when moving elements such as clouds or water streak across the image frame, acting as a virtual paintbrush.”

Color is at the forefront of Plant’s Dreamscapes, and although it’s achieved and enhanced with digital tools, it has its origins in analog photography.

“Although I’ve been shooting digital for the past four years,” says Plant, “my photographic roots are strongly entrenched in film. When processing images on the computer, I try to give them a film look—that is, to render the image the way it would have looked if shot with color slide film. Usually, this means enhancing color saturation and contrast. Color slide film automatically ‘applied’ extra contrast and saturation to each image. When shooting digital RAW, you end up with an image file that, by comparison, is somewhat flat. So digital RAW shooters have to add color and contrast while processing the image. Of course, certain aspects of film I try to avoid—like all of the weird color shifts you’d sometimes get in shadows, the relatively limited dynamic range and grain. It amazes me, however, when I look back at my old 4x5 color transparencies—the colors can sometimes just pop right off the light table. They called it ‘Disneychrome’ for a reason.”


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