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Ian Plant: From Lawyer to "Starving" Artist

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Read Time: 14 mins

Ian Plant left a career as a lawyer to follow the light and build Dreamscapes. And he never looked back. A believer in the "if you can see it, you can do it" motto, Plant spends as much time as he can in the field photographing. Luckily, we were able to catch up with the photographer between trips.

It was through Dreamscapes that I found Plant. He runs a blog on the site with some of his friends, and I visit it from time to time, looking for the visions from the different authors. Dreamscapes was Plant's idea, first a portfolio of work and then a name used regularly, after Outdoor Photographer Magazine ran a profile about the photographer.

I thought I understood the significance of the name, looking at Plant's photographs: they're dreamy. Then I came across his most recent eBook, Visual Flow - Mastering The Art Of Composition, a collaboration with friend and photographer George Stocking, and I felt I wanted to know more.

I also guessed readers here at Phototuts+ would be as curious as me if they would see Plant's work. So, I contacted him and asked if he could spare the time to answer some questions. Here is what he had to say, along with some of his photographs that will make you want to dream and be inspired. Remember his saying: "if you can see it, you can do it"!

Q Your most recent eBook is called Visual Flow - Mastering The Art Of Composition. It's a 287 page guide about composition. How important is composition in photography and in your photography? What does it represent?

In my opinion, composition is the single most import aspect of the art of photography. Obviously, light, subject matter, color, mood, and moment are all important as well, but without solid composition they all become much less effective. Composition is the thread which ties all of these other elements together.

When it comes right down to it, all of these are represented visually within the picture space, and composition, the artistic arrangement and positioning of visual elements, is precisely the method used to convey all of this to the viewer, and to coax these elements into a coherent story.

Although the importance of the emotion evoked by a photograph’s subject matter and mood cannot be underestimated, likewise the primal visual response evoked by a skillful composition cannot be ignored or forgotten. Composition, above all, is your way of making others see what you see.

Q How did you become interested in photography? Did you have any other profession before, and if so, why did you change?

Believe it or not, I was a lawyer for a big Washington, D.C. law firm for eight years. I bought my first camera when I was in law school, and I was completely hooked from the beginning. It was then that I realized I had made a huge, $100,000 mistake (on my law school education, that is, the camera only cost $100).

As the years went on, it became increasingly clear to me that photography was what I wanted to do for a living. Once I paid off my school debt, I quit my respectable day job and dived into the life of (as some of my former legal colleagues put it) a starving artist. That was almost ten years ago, and I've never looked back.

Q You photograph but also write about photography, not just books, but also for magazines like Outdoor Photographer and Popular Photography. What is more difficult? To photograph or to write and try to explain to people your intentions with each image?

Writing is easy and enjoyable for me. Photography is the hard part. I need to spend enormous time in the field (usually about half of any given year), and much of that time is spent waiting for the right conditions to make good photographs. This is not an easy gig! Time away from home puts a significant strain on me and my family. But, I love it and wouldn't have it any other way.

Q You're a landscape photographer, so probably I should not ask this, but is photography for you a 9 to 5 job or something that takes more of your time? What do you do when you're not photographing?

My photography business is a full-time job, and by full-time, I mean I almost never take a day off or take any vacation time. When I'm not photographing, I'm busy running my photo business, writing articles, blogging, etc. It never seems to end, but I love every minute of it.

Q Your photographs have an eerie beauty, something I relate to the choice of the name Dreamscapes used on your own and your common project with other photographers. I guess there are special techniques involved to get that particular look, but before we go to that, explain to me the choice of the name Dreamscapes and if it really reflects what you want to create with your photographs? Are you trying to create landscapes that let us dream?

I like the sound of that, ”landscapes that let us dream,” it has a nice ring to it. The whole “Dreamscapes” theme came about somewhat by accident. I had named one of my portfolios on my website Dreamscapes just because I liked the name, but didn't really think much about it until Outdoor Photographer Magazine did a profile on me. They took the Dreamscapes theme and ran with it.

It got me thinking about making the whole Dreamscapes thing more than just a portfolio title, but rather an entire artistic identity. Thus “Dreamscapes by Ian Plant” was born. I know, it's a bit cheesy, but what arguably started as a marketing gimmick has evolved over time into something much more significant to me.

So, what exactly am I striving for when I make a “Dreamscape”? To me, Dreamscapes are photographs that move beyond the literal, transforming subjects into something unexpected by rendering the familiar in an unfamiliar way.

I use a combination of pre-capture techniques to create Dreamscapes, relying on long exposures, unique lighting conditions, non-traditional perspectives, and special natural events, all of which can render landscape scenes in a surprising or unfamiliar way, perhaps with a touch of the surreal. The sensation of the waking dream is what I hope to evoke, although the elements seem true, the line between fantasy and reality blurs.

Q Dreamscapes is also a collaborative project, a blog with four photographers. How did the idea for that cooperation arise? Was it a common interest into the same way to look at photography that made you go ahead with the project? What are the upsides and downsides of a collaborative space like Dreamscapes?

The group blogging project really just arose from personal connections I've made with other photographers. I reached out to some close friends. It was really nothing more than a fun way for us to collaborate. To be honest, I really didn't have any expectations for the group project, but it has worked extremely well.

I think my blog readers really enjoy having multiple perspectives. The other guys on the team also like to gang up and pick on me, something my readers seem to relish. I think it is fair to say that the group effort makes the blog more informative, more interactive, and above all, much more fun. If nothing else, we're extremely entertaining.

Q Your eBook Visual Flow has photographs from George Stocking, a photographer also present at the Dreamscapes blog. Images from either you or George Stocking spell the word DREAMY. How do you achieve that special look?

For the most part, the “dreamy” look is a result of shooting when conditions are just right. Both George and I spend a lot of time in the field waiting for unique weather and other natural events. We both also shoot a lot during twilight, and sunrise and sunset. When conditions are just right, you can get some amazing colors, as well as unique composition opportunities arising from the interaction of the land and clouds in the sky.

QHow much are you editing in Photoshop or any other program?

Photoshop is an important part of the artistic process these days, not just for me but for most digital photographers. I shot color slide film (primarily Fujichrome Velvia) for many years before switching to digital, and I try to incorporate the high contrast, high color saturation look of Velvia into my digital photographs.

I firmly believe, however, that the magic of a photograph should come primarily from what happens in front of you when you trigger the camera shutter. If most or all of the magic comes from what you do on the computer, then what you end up with isn't really a “photograph,” or at least not a photograph as I know it.

I'm not really interested in being a digital artist. I want to capture beauty through the photographic process, not create it on a computer. There's nothing wrong with computer art, it's just not why I got into photography. That said, “creative” digital processing is becoming more and more commonplace these days, and has become increasingly part of the photographic process for many people. I try to keep an open mind and stay abreast with current trends.

Q In your eBook you state that composition is a highly subjective, multifaceted, and complex subject, susceptible to multiple interpretations. Does that mean your eBook is not the only thing people should read to learn about composition? Or does Visual Flow offer more than your own vision in terms of composition?

Yes, by all means, I encourage people to study composition from multiple sources. My book really presents composition from my point of view, and the point of view of George Stocking who collaborated with me on the project. Other people approach the topic in different ways.

I study the work of others in the book, but I do so from my personal artistic perspective. What seems important to me might not seem important to others. Visual Flow represents my personal contribution to the discourse about artistic composition. I am extremely proud of the book and I think it makes an important contribution, but it is by no means the final word on the topic.

Q Enough about the eBook. How do you determine that a landscape has the potential to become one of your pictures? What is it that makes you stop and look twice? Or do you go back over and over to the same places and reinvent compositions that will show others what you saw?

When I am in the field, I look for landscapes which are special and unique, but in a way that is personal to me. I don't like going to the stand-up pretty icons which have been shot over and over again by thousands of other photographers, though there is nothing wrong with doing so, and I occasionally find myself shooting such scenes anyway. Let's face it, they became icons for a reason, they are exceptionally beautiful and inspiring places.

More than anything, however, I am looking for what I call “convergences,” moments when random visual elements converge in a pleasing way. I more focused on these convergences, rather than specific features of the landscape, for two primary reasons. One, rare moments can transform even mundane scenes into something sublime. And two, photos of places can be easily copied by others, whereas photos of moments are unique.

Q Being able to "see" seems to be the secret behind composition. Can the capacity "to see" be taught to people? Is that something you do in your workshops, or do you merely explain the basics, like the rule of thirds and how cameras work? What can people expect when they register for a workshop with you?

I absolutely believe that people can be taught to “see” creatively. I like to tell people, “if you can see it, you can do it.” The first step is to study the work of others, photographers and other types of artists, especially painters. When you see a work that you like, try and think why you like it. We all have a gut reaction to art when we see it, but sometimes it is hard to understand why we like something or we don't.

Thinking about the “why” and trying to come up with an objective articulation to explain our gut reactions can be very useful. Sometimes, of course, it helps if someone with more experience points out a few things. I try to do this in Visual Flow, and in my workshops.

It's great to watch someone's eyes widen when you explain a composition to them, and have them nod their head enthusiastically and say, “oh, I get it now.” As soon as you can see the composition tricks and techniques used by others, you can start applying that knowledge in your own work, transforming “seeing” into “doing.”

As for my workshops, I try to keep them informal and fun, but informative as well. I've found that most people taking workshops want to crawl inside the head of a pro and figure out how they see the world. I do my best to give my workshop clients that opportunity, and to show them new ways of seeing things.

To me, a successful workshop pushes people to think about things in new ways, and encourages them to explore new perspectives. I try to give my clients as many “I never thought of doing that before” moments as I possibly can.

Q Generally, what are your creative influences?

To be honest, these days I don't look all that much at the photography of others, at least nature photography. Although it is important to be exposed to new ideas, especially when starting out, you reach a point where you want to explore your own vision.

Personally, I find it is easy to get sidetracked by looking at the work of others, when you see something that someone else has done which you like, the natural inclination is to want to incorporate that technique into your own workflow. I'm trying to avoid this and to develop a style which is wholly my own.

I do still study other types of photography, and other types of art. In my opinion, nature photography as an art form is somewhat limited in scope. I'm very interested in finding new ways of expressing my natural subjects, and I think there are lessons to be learned from other types of art, especially from the great painters and from street photographers.

Q What gear do you take with you in a normal trip to your favorite places?

I try to keep my gear lightweight and flexible, as field work for me usually involves wilderness travel such as backpacking or kayaking. I'll typically bring two camera bodies (it's always a good idea to have a backup camera in case of equipment failure or damage), two or three lenses (usually my 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and possibly a 70-200mm), and my lightweight Gitzo Ocean Traveler carbon fiber tripod.

When I am shooting wildlife, I'm forced to bring a heavier tripod and some bigger glass, such as a 100-400mm or my 500mm lens. I'll usually bring a flash along unless on a wilderness trip where space and weight are at a premium.

Q Can you share some tips for people interested in landscape photography, either as an amateur or pro? Is there a path to go beyond the simple technique suggestions?

My advice to other photographers is twofold. First, practice, practice, practice: if you want to get better, nothing can replace simple good old fashioned elbow grease. Second, don't be afraid to experiment and try something different. Too often, I see photographers simply follow the easy path already trodden by so many who have come before them.

Sure, you can easily build a world-class portfolio by shooting the famous icons of nature, but it won't really be your portfolio, instead it will represent the vision of other photographers. I strongly encourage everyone to get off the beaten path, and to find their own artistic vision.

Q Plans for the future? Any special projects you would like to accomplish?

I've only got one “project” and it never ends: to explore the majesty of our natural world and document it with my camera. I expect I'll be doing this until the very end. You can pry my camera from my cold dead hands!

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