To reach Smith Island, Maryland, from the mainland, nature photographer Ian Plant must navigate a kayak across the Chesapeake Bay for eight miles. While calm seas and blue skies yield an uneventful and rather rapid crossing, it also means a lackluster opportunity for powerful photography. He sets up camp on a remote beach and waits for something better in the morning.
Much to his chagrin, cloudy skies and heavy winds greet him the next morning.
The bay waters churn and pound against the shore. But Plant must move on and cross another six miles of open water to reach his next island destination. He endures the full force of a late October squall, complete with four-foot waves crashing over his kayak. Progress is slow and uncertain, but after several hours of nerve-wracking paddling, Plant struggles ashore at a spot suitable for camping. Within moments, the wind dissipates and the clouds break apart. The light is spectacular, and Plant grabs his camera gear and begins photographing.
The golden light of sunset shifts to the pastel hues of dusk. As remnants of the storm drift by, its tailing edge paints reddish-gold reflections in the now calm waters. The scene lasts for only a moment, but that's enough time for Plant to photograph. Persistence, patience, a reliable kayak and strong arms all play a role in helping him capture the memory.
|A great egret, sunrise, Chincoteague National Wildlife Reserve, Virginia.|
Such is a day photographing for Ian Plant, one of the emerging talents in nature photography. Plant is quickly gaining both a well-deserved reputation from the public for his stirring images and a deep respect from his colleagues. To date, Plant's six books, which include Shenandoah: Wonder and Light, West Virginia: Wonder and Light, Maryland: Wonder and Light and, his most recent release, Chesapeake: Bay of Light, have celebrated the extraordinary beauty of a region of the United States often ignored. But more on that later.
It’s where Plant focuses his work that sets him apart. He's one of only a handful of professional nature photographers who primarily centers on the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
"It happened by accident‚" recalls Plant. "I settled here for my legal career, but I soon discovered the region has plenty of beautiful natural areas‚ from the ephemeral barrier islands of the Atlantic Coast to the thundering rapids of the Great Falls of the Potomac River to the endless ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And the concentration of wildlife in the area is astounding. The Mid-Atlantic has a staggering array of biodiversity."
And while the Mid-Atlantic is within reach of nearly two-thirds of the American population, Plant has successfully avoided the crowds.
"That's the great thing about photographing in the East," he says. "There are still many areas that haven't been overshot, so it's easier to find a fresh perspective than in some of the popular parks out West."
Venturing into the backcountry also helps Plant stay fresh and away from the crowds. Backpacking and kayaking are his primary modes for getting into the region's remote corners.
"Make an effort to find your own special places that no one has photographed before," Plant points out. "And, as always, you must constantly strive to push the envelope in your photography—to go 'extreme' in trying to find new angles and perspectives, even in these remote places."
The Outdoor Experience
Plant's photography treks include a combination of pre-planning and spontaneity. "For landscape work, I scout a location before the magic hour of light begins, looking for powerful compositional elements such as shapes, colors and foreground to background progression," he says. "From there I wait, adjusting my composition, depending on what's happening in the sky or with the light on the landscape."
For wildlife, Plant's approach remains flexible, but he still uses some advance planning: "I strive to photograph wildlife in the same dramatic light that I seek for my landscape photos. Knowing about the animal and its behaviors also can help you be in the right position for the magic hour."
|Fog and flowing grass, Craggy Gardens, The Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina.|
For Plant, patience remains vital to great photography. "Learn to use patience for recording truly magnificent light that makes a scene come to life," he says. "One has to be willing to wait long hours in the field and to return to locations over and over again to get the shot right. You must be willing to do it all over if the shot doesn't happen."
Revisiting a location or scene is something Plant strongly recommends, regardless of whether photographing from the road or in the wilderness.
Plant does come across scenes when the composition jumps right out and becomes obvious. "More often than not, however, I struggle to find what I want," he says. "Sometimes the struggle leads to an epiphany and a great image ensues. Sometimes it doesn't. I'll often go back to a location where I previously failed and found something I liked. As the old saying goes, 'Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you'. I've been eaten by bear more times than I care to count."
Making The Image Unique
In crafting his compositions, Plant tries to view the elements of the scene as abstractions: "I look for repeating shapes, lines and forms. I'm also very much into 'atmospherics'—I love compositions where something interesting is happening with clouds in the sky or with the weather, such as mist. Along with unique lighting, I'm looking to find compositions that create a mood. Where both mood and composition come together, that's where I want to be."
Another technique in Plant's toolkit is perspective. Look closely at his images, and you'll notice he isn't always standing, but rather he's closer to the ground.
"I personally love the low-angle perspective," he says. "I try to get into the scene as much as possible, so I can effectively transport the viewer into the composition. Sometimes that means you have to get low and get close to your subject. I find this technique particularly helpful with landscapes, as it creates compositional tension between the foreground and background. It also can be helpful with wildlife, since it offers the viewer a sense of the environment where the animal lives."
|LEFT: A macro-sized praying mantis; RIGHT: A snowy egret, Richardson Marsh, Maryland.|
Plant has incorporated into his digital workflow the use of Photoshop's blending for multiple exposures. "My favorite landscape lens, the Sigma 12-24mm, has a built-in lens hood and a bulbous front end, making use of filters impossible," he says. "So I was forced to blend multiple exposures for this lens in situations that would otherwise require a graduated neutral-density filter. I liked the results so much I've almost altogether stopped using graduated neutral-density filters on my other lenses. Blending allows you to avoid those unsightly dark areas that often occur at the transition zone when using these filters. I think a smoother and more natural transition can be achieved through blending."
Plant's cameras of choice include the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II for landscapes and the Canon EOS 20D when photographing wildlife from his kayak. He uses a combination of Canon and Sigma lenses. "Sigma has many innovative and high-quality lens choices that I find very appealing," Plant says, "including what I call my 'bookend' lenses: the Sigma 12-24mm wide-angle full-frame zoom and the 300-800mm telephoto zoom."
The Bay Of Light
Plant's latest book, Chesapeake: Bay of Light, has received rave reviews, including a recent write-up in the book section of The Washington Post. For Plant, this book is his signature piece and the one of which he's most proud. "I try to explore areas that haven't been photographed to death already," says Plant. "That's what was great about the Chesapeake project—there are very few nature photographers working the bay, and in the book I tried to photograph the bay in a way it has never been photographed."
Previous books about the Chesapeake focused on the human elements of history and culture, such as historic towns, lighthouses and the local population of watermen—the men who work the bay for fish, oysters and crabs. Plant became the first photographer to document the natural landscapes and wildlife of the bay in an exhibition-style coffee-table book.
The idea began three years ago. "I was photographing bay scenes for Virginia: Wonder and Light, and I was struck by the beauty of the bay," recalls Plant. "With the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 2007—and the beginning of Captain John Smith's epic exploration of the bay—the relevance and significance of this project seemed obvious."
Plant recruited writer Tom Horton to pen the book's essays. "Tom is a leading authority on the bay," says Plant. "I contacted him and asked if he was interested. Luckily, he was!"
The Publishing Business
Upon entering the photography profession, Plant became dismayed at how difficult it was for new photographers to make a living in the editorial and stock markets, especially for many full-time pros who have found their markets shrinking in the past few years.
"I decided to add publisher to my forte," explains Plant. "I had the opportunity to partner with another photographer, Jerry Greer from Tennessee, who had a small publishing company of his own and had already self-published two books and a yearly calendar."
Mountain Trail Press now has 16 books and four calendars. Plant and Greer not only self-publish their own work, but also publish the work of other photographers, including George Stocking in Arizona, Michael Hardeman in Oklahoma, Richard Bernabe in South Carolina and Bill Lea in North Carolina, among others.
|American coots, Potomac River, Virginia.|
What's next for Plant? "There are too many projects to keep track of, but my most immediate projects include a book on the Atlantic's wild barrier islands and another on the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York," he says. "There's so much to do and see in this world that I hope I never retire!"
Plant is living his dream and now is helping others do so as well. But most important for Plant is having the opportunity to share with others his vision and love for the great outdoors.
"It's the beauty and power of nature that guides my work," says Plant. "I can only hope my images capture even the tiniest fraction of that inspiration and create a spark in the hearts of others."