Interview with World-renowned professional nature photographer Ian Plant
You project a strong connection with the natural world in your photos. Have you always loved the outdoors and at what point did you decide to start photographing it?
I’ve been active in the outdoors since I was a kid, taking up hiking and backpacking at an early age, and eventually getting into rock climbing, kayaking, mountain climbing, and other outdoor adventure along the way. I bought my first camera almost twenty years ago, just so I could come back from my wilderness trips with something more than memories. I became hooked on photography right away, and have loved it ever since.
What do you like best about nature photography? Is there anything you don’t like about it?
There is something truly awe inspiring about our natural world. Witnessing the glory of nature in action can make your heart skip a beat and take your breath away. My goal is to capture even just a fraction of this incredible beauty, and share it with others. I’m hard pressed to say that there is anything about it I don’t like, but if I had to say something, I think it would be biting insects!
Your folder entitled ‘Dreamscapes’ showcases some of your best work. What are some of the elements that you make sure to incorporate in your photos?
I think the best photos tell a story, and capture something mysterious and unique, such as a fleeting moment or mood. I look for unconventional compositions and rare lighting in order to show my viewers a different world than they are used to seeing. I also want to show them the world as I see it through my eyes, so I’m always looking for a way to impart my own personal stamp on my photographs, and to let my creative vision shine through.
As a nature photographer with almost twenty years of experience, do you have any tips for beginners who wish to get into the same line of work as you?
Practice, practice, practice! This is a very competitive business, and only your best will suffice to get you noticed. Nothing beats getting behind the lens as much as possible. Constantly engaging in the creative process will improve your technical and artistic skills and fuel your passion for creating photographs. If you can’t nurture and sustain that passion, you won’t get very far.
What do you see as being your most satisfying accomplishment so far?
Well, I guess I could say that every successful image I make is a satisfying accomplishment, and I hope that each will be better than the last. I’m always striving to improve my artistic vision. But to offer something more concrete, I guess the completion of my most recent book “Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition” would have to be the thing I am most proud of to date. I spent over a year working on the book, and I feel that I produced something that is not only going to help others improve their compositional skills, but that is also a definitive personal artistic statement. The book not only contains practical, real world advice for those looking to become better photographers, but it also gave me an opportunity to explore and discuss my own personal vision and to share it with others.
What are some of the places you want to visit but have not been able to yet?
In the past few years, I’ve been to some incredible places, including many scenic areas in the U.S. and Canada, Iceland, Belize, Scotland, Namibia, Peru, and the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile. But these places don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the places I intend to visit! I have a bucket list a mile long, and it never seems to get any shorter. I’m currently in the process of planning trips to locations in Venezuela, Botswana, Mexico, Bhutan, Morocco, and many other exotic locations. I’m really just getting started, and I can’t wait to see where the wind takes me in the next few years!
Not all photographers have formal training in photography, choosing to shoot according to what feels or looks right to them rather than base it on photography ‘rules’. How important is it to master the art of composition to create better photos?
Mastering the art of composition is vitally important, as it is how the photographer tells a story to the viewer and shares their vision of the world. That said, I don’t believe in any “rules” of composition. In my book Visual Flow, I try instead to give people tools which they can use. There’s nothing wrong with shooting according to what feels or looks right – that is the essence of composition – but it certainly helps to think critically about these subjective feelings, turning them into objective lessons that can be applied going forward. I should point out that I have never had any formal training in art of any kind—I got to where I am today by intuition and trial-and-error, like most of us. I do believe there is great value, however, in studying the successful compositions of others, in an effort to learn more and to improve one’s skills.
Aside from shooting landscapes and seascapes, you shoot wildlife as well. How do you prepare for an outdoor shoot when there are so many variables to consider?
I prefer to not prepare much at all. Photography, at its core, is all about capturing moments when the essence of a subject is revealed. I like to say that as photographers, our job is to wait until the natural world randomly coalesces into something coherent and compelling—and then to strike when the moment is ripe and capturing it with our cameras. Whereas certain types of photography allow the artist to control many of the variables, nature photography is more up to chance and whim. It is important to stay flexible, and to react to what is offered. Of course, the photographer can control quite a bit of the artistic process, through choice of lens, position, use of flash, etc., but an open-minded, flexible approach is often best. I try not to arrive at a location with too much of an agenda or a bias—I let my subject and natural light do its thing, waiting for something unique to occur.
When did you turn pro, and how did you transition from amateur to professional? Do you have any tips for people struggling to make photography their main career?
I dabbled for a few years doing photography on the side, but I didn’t really have anything that resembled a photography business when I quit my “real” job almost ten years ago. Which was probably not the smartest way to approach things, but I quickly found that only by diving in and immersing myself completely was I able to start building my business. I think what is most important to remember is that photography is a business, and without some business savvy most photographers are going to struggle. I had to be smart about where to invest my time and resources, and to constantly be seeking to diversify and grow my revenue stream. As a freelance photographer, I “eat what I hunt,” so to speak, so I don’t get paid unless I work hard to create business opportunities and connect with clients and customers.
It says on your website that you travel every month. What do you bring with you in your camera bag?
When shooting landscapes, I tend to travel as light as possible, so I bring a bare minimum to make sure I am not bogged down. It really helps to have a light load when going through airports, customs—and especially when backpacking or kayaking in the wild. When shooting wildlife, I of course have to carry a bit more. My general equipment roster is always changing, but right now I have the following: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Nikon 14-24mm lens with a Canon EOS adapter, Canon 16-35mm Mark II lens, Canon 500mm lens, Tamron 24-70mm lens, Tamron 70-200mm lens, Canon 24-105mm lens, Canon 100-400mm lens, and a bunch of other odds and ends. I use an assortment of Gitzo and Bogen tripods, and Guru Gear and F-Stop Gear bags. As you can see, I have no particular brand loyalty—cameras and lenses are just tools, and I choose the tools which will best fit my creative needs and my budget.
World-renowned professional nature photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant has been photographing our natural world for almost twenty years. Ian is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, and a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine.
Ian’s work also appears in many other books, calendars, ad campaigns, and magazines available worldwide. Ian is the author of several dozen books (in both print and electronic format) and instructional videos, including the acclaimed Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition, which spans several centuries and different artistic media in its quest to reveal the composition secrets of the great masters, The Ultimate Guide to Digital Nature Photography, which offers readers a step-by-step approach to improve their artistic vision and technical skills, and Chesapeake: Bay of Light, which received praise from The Washington Post, The Washington Times and other leading newspapers for its documentation of the endangered Chesapeake Bay.