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Off the Beaten Path

“Off the Beaten Path”: it’s more than just a euphemism for getting lost. It’s a lifestyle choice, a philosophical approach to things generally, and to nature photography specifically. It’s not just about exploring new areas and finding special places that are all your own. It’s also about digging deep and finding a way to capture that which is special, that which is quintessential, about the wonder of nature around you. It’s about finding a way to take a given scene and make it unique, no matter how many times it’s been photographed before. It’s as much of a journey within as without. The beauty of the natural world is all around us, but to stand out as a photographer, you must be willing to go the extra mile to tell nature’s story.

Patagonia Rainbow

Before I go any further, I guess a bit of an introduction is in order. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll shut up and share a few, taken during a recent trip to the Patagonia region of Argentina. Okay, maybe I won’t shut up completely—this is, after all, a blog, and I’ve never been very good at keeping quiet anyway—but I’ll at least try to let my photos do most of the talking.

Patagonia contains some of the most stunning mountain scenery on Earth, complete with sky-piercing mountains, hanging glaciers, and clear mountain lakes that glimmer like sapphires. Stunning scenery, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into stunning photographs. Great light and great composition are both required in equal measure to take a scene, whether it is sublime or mundane, and transform it into a photograph that moves people. I traveled to the far side of the world and spent two weeks trekking through the unforgiving Patagonian backcountry—climbing glaciers, crossing swollen rivers via Tyrolean traverse, and enduring lung-busting ascents and gale force winds—looking for places and moments that could reveal the essential character of this magnificent land.

The whole time I was in Patagonia, I searched for a particular image—an image that existed first only in my mind, waiting for me to pluck it from the living world. I envisioned a clear mountain stream flowing forth from a mountain paradise, and I spent two weeks climbing high and low to find it. More often than not, whenever I engage in this “pre-visualization” exercise, it proves to be fruitless, as imagination tends to construct mythical scenes that fail to be matched by reality. This time, however, I got lucky, and I found my chimerical stream deep in the Patagonian wilderness.  To me, the stream was a necessary component not only because of its natural beauty, but because of its compositional power to lead the eye, to put viewers in the picture and give them a sense of being there. It allowed me to transport viewers thousands of miles to this very remote and wild place, without having to carry them over any glaciers. This is the appeal of nature photography: its vicariousness. A photograph that can move someone will stand above the rest.

“Off the Beaten Path”: It’s a personal mantra, I guess, a persistent drumbeat in my head telling me to go farther, push harder, and keep looking for new and fresh ways to tell nature’s story. It’s a mantra that I think should be used by everyone making nature photographs, so I encourage others to take it out for a spin. It will also be the mantra of my blog here at OP—I’ll strive to keep the topics off-beat, interesting, and above all, fun. I’ll be posting on a regular basis—with discussions about composition and light, dispatches from the field, and random thoughts that head my way—so check back often!

I’d love to hear from folks, so please feel free to use the comment link above. Also, if you like this post, please spread the word.

If you are interested in seeing more of my Patagonia images and reading about my backcountry adventures, visit the Patagonia Photo Journal on my website.

Ian Plant