|“Ocotillo Stars.” Stars trace across the sky during an hour-long exposure in the Kofa Mountains, Arizona. A red-filtered flash was used to light the graceful ocotillo branches.|
Photographer Ian Plant challenges many of the conventional notions that define landscape photography. Rather than refer to his photographs as landscapes, for example, he uses a different term—one that refers both to a specific body of work, as well as a guiding photographic philosophy: Dreamscapes.
“The concept of Dreamscapes sums up my whole philosophy of photography,” says Plant. “I strive to create images that move beyond the literal, transforming subjects into something unexpected for the viewer by rendering the familiar in an unfamiliar way. I’d like to think that most of my images are Dreamscapes, even if I don’t always refer to them as such.”
Storm’s Eye.” A sandstone formation in the Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona against an advancing storm.
Though Plant isn’t striving for pure abstractions or lyrical interpretations without any connection to recognizable landscape features, he does push the envelope. Finding something beautiful and bringing back a picture isn’t enough—partly from a craving for originality and partly because of his desire to create.
“Many of my images drift into the surreal,” he says, “but not so much as to render them completely Daliesque—not usually, at least. I think it’s important to keep an element of reality, but a purely documentary approach doesn’t much interest me. This may be, in part, a reaction to the intense popularity of nature photography among new digital-camera users. It has become increasingly difficult to find ways to be original.
“I find myself increasingly pushing away from literal interpretations of nature scenes,” he continues. “My move to more abstract photography is also a reaction to the fact that, too often, nature photographers rely on the drama of the scenery to make powerful images. Sure, a beautiful landscape combined with an amazing sunset can make for a stunning photograph, but Mother Nature is doing all the work, and the photographer is merely showing up to record the big event. I prefer to make photographs where I can play a larger role in the creative process. Don’t get me wrong—I still enjoy being there when Mother Nature puts on a show, but I’ll be the first to admit who has really done all the creative work.”
"Primordial Night.” Taken from a boat using a tripod with extension legs in seven feet of water, this eight-minute night exposure captures clouds streaking across the sky in Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia.
Plant relies on his creative passion and a willingness to use uniquely photographic techniques to transform the land into Dreamscapes. Rather than relying solely on the environment to dictate a shot, he combines elements of location and chance with techniques like long exposures to create something unseen by the naked eye.
“Artists should impose their vision on the scene,” Plant says, “not the other way around. I’m always looking for ways to create an image, rather than just record one. I achieve this by finding ways to use the camera, my lenses and other accessories, as well as alternative lighting and perspectives, to transform how the viewer might otherwise see the scene, presenting something new and surprising. Neutral-density, graduated neutral-density and polarizing filters are essential for extending exposures to help create a surreal look. It helps as well to view the elements of a scene as abstractions. I’m not photographing a rock or a waterfall, but rather an abstract shape that needs to relate to other shapes in the image. The ability to see beyond the literal is absolutely essential to the creative process.
“Another way to transform a scene,” he continues, “is, ironically, to relinquish control of the process. Using ND filters to achieve long exposures is a good example. When you slow your shutter speed down to several minutes, you lose control over how the image will look. But injecting a healthy dose of chaos into the image-making process is a good thing because chaos is the lifeblood of art. It all starts with letting go and seeing what happens.”
Listening to Plant talk about pushing the boundaries of traditional landscapes, it would be easy to misread his passion for restlessness. He’s not tired of tradition; quite the opposite. He simply wants to take a more active and engaged role as a creator.
“Dreamscape.” A 30-sec. twilight exposure from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park renders fast-moving clouds as an impressionistic blur.
“I’m not sure I would say that I’m bored with traditional landscapes,” he explains, “but I do believe that nature photography, as an art form, has to reach out into new directions or else it risks becoming stagnant. We have seen too many pictures of stunning landscapes or sunset skies. Too often nature photographers merely ‘chase the light,’ waiting for that perfect sunset over a dramatic high-mountain lake. I think we need to take a more active role in artistic creation and not just leave it all up to Mother Nature. That’s what makes night work so appealing to me; when all is covered in darkness, it’s the closest I ever get to working on a blank canvas. Instead of chasing the image, I get a chance to create it.”
One of Plant’s favorite subjects is the landscape after dark. Challenging though it may be, it affords him the opportunity to be creative in the camera and surprise himself—and his viewers—by creating something out of the ordinary.
“Night work takes a lot of planning,” he says. “It can be very difficult to get the right look, and it’s hard to predict what will emerge after several minutes—or hours—of exposure. Using flash allows me to control which parts of the scene get illuminated. I use flash, flashlights, lanterns or other artificial light sources to illuminate the landscape, sometimes using colored gel filters to play with color contrasts.
“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.”
“Desert Garden.” Ocotillo, brittlebush and scorpionweed bloom amidst a grove of cholla cacti in Arizona’s Kofa Mountains.
Plant’s passion for technique and creativity might give the impression that the landscape is but a component. In truth, he takes great pains to ensure his images remain about the landscape. What’s most unique about Dreamscapes is that they don’t rely on traditional archetypes.
“Certainly, the landscape itself plays a huge role in creating Dreamscapes,” Plant says, “but even the most bizarre and twisted landscape needs the right combination of composition, mood and light to produce a dreamy effect. Dreamscapes can happen anywhere; [they] don’t require a dramatic landscape. Often more than the landscape, weather plays a central role. Stormy weather is my favorite. I pay special attention to the shapes formed by clouds in the sky and how they relate to shapes and textures in the foreground. Convergence and rare events in nature are also important, such as unusually good spring blooms. Another significant aspect is time. Long exposures and shooting on the edge of twilight often reveal colors and patterns, and a sense of motion, which would otherwise not be seen.”
Perhaps no image in Plant’s portfolio represents the prototypical Dreamscape more than the image of the Smokies at sunset. It’s so special, in fact, he titled this image “Dreamscape.”
“Its creation sums up for me the kind of photograph I’m always striving to create,” Plant explains. “The image was made on the edge of twilight on top of the tallest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains, just barely poking above fast-moving clouds that completely covered the landscape for miles in all directions. The light was so faint that I could barely see enough to focus and operate my camera. A 30-second exposure allowed the clouds, which were lit only by blue light reflecting from the darkening, clear sky above, to streak through the image like moving water. To me, that’s what Dreamscapes are all about—photographing a subject seen and shot millions of times in a way that has never been done before.”
To see more of Ian Plant’s photography, visit www.ianplant.com.
|Live-Viewing The Landscape
Working in the dark is easier for Ian Plant these days, thanks to innovations in D-SLRs with Live View technology. Rather than straining to gauge focus and depth of field through the viewfinder, he’s able to do it easily on the LCD on the back of the camera. It’s so convenient and precise, in fact, that he has taken to utilizing it at every opportunity—much like an old-school landscape photographer would compose via large-format’s ground glass.
“I find Live View to be a vital tool,” Plant says. “I’m often working in extremely low light, and using Live View zoomed to 100 percent to focus is much easier than peering through a dark viewfinder. I use it for almost every landscape shot to find my hyperfocal distance and optimum aperture. The ability to use my depth-of-field preview button in conjunction with Live View zoomed to 100 percent means I never miss focus or depth of field. Not all cameras allow you to use depth-of-field preview in conjunction with Live View—I think this is an area where Canon has an advantage.”