17 Apr
Ian Plant By
Posted in: Patagonia    21 Comments

Square Pegs and Round Holes

One of the worst things people can do is to make something into something it is not. Whether it is a politician telling lies to get elected, a marketing executive trying to make a product sound far more exciting than it really is, or a cover band turning a rockin’ song into a horrible slow jazz remix, when you turn something into something it is not, you end up with something that lacks definition and substance.

The same is true with nature photography. Too often, we try to jam compositions into preset formulas, looking for sweeping lines when none are called for, or pumping the light and colors in Photoshop to turn a modest sunrise into a Disneyesque cartoon. We get obsessed with trying to capture something bold and compelling, and forget to simply capture what Nature offers us.

Rather than trying to make something into something it is not, we should at all times seek to be attuned to what our something actually is. We should seek to reveal the essence of our subject, rather than reinvent it. We should let existing shapes and light guide our compositions; we should let the pace and mood set by Nature be our Muse, rather than try to bend her to our will.

I photographed this same location in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile a year ago, but this time I got a completely different result. Last year, an epic sunrise called for a tight, simple, and powerful composition. This year, subtle pre-dawn light and wind-driven clouds called for something less compelling, but more elegant. I opted for a wider view, including elements that had been distracting or unimportant the year before. I let the scene’s light, mood, and movement guide my composition, instead of trying to fit existing conditions into some preconceived notion of what the image should be.

By trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, we end up with something that reveals nothing of the true essence of our subject or of the moment. We end up with something that has no soul. By staying true to the place and moment, we tell the story of our subject, in a way that is ultimately more compelling than a paint-by-numbers approach. At all times, we should seek to find a way to make the pieces fit—seamlessly, elegantly, and naturally—rather than pounding them into place with blunt force and hoping for the best.

"Aurora's Blush" by Ian Plant

Twilight glow above Los Cuernos, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile (Patagonia). Canon 5DII, 24mm, ISO 200, f/11, 2 minutes.

Ian PlantAbout Ian Plant (414 Posts)

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.


  • Welcome back young man! Beautiful image and great advice!

    Hope the trip was great, can’t wait to see more images.

  • A real beauty, Ian. Ethereal and evocative.

    A thought for a potential future blog: perhaps you could do something about your gorgeous long exposures. For example – how would the same shot look with a 30-second-or-less exposure, compared to a longer exposure? I know this was a great learning experience for me when we were together at Artists Point.

  • I like your comparison and the photos with just a blush are always reaching me…great work :)

  • “One of the worst things people can do is to make something into something it is not” … and then you post a severely manipulated image as an example, lol!

    • Ian Plant

      What makes you think it is “severely manipulated?” Were you there when I took the photo? Tell me what it is exactly that you think has been manipulated?

      Trolls are not welcome here, go away if all you can do is make unsubstantiated accusations without having the guts to use your real name.

  • Stellar image and advice Ian. I get jealous every time you and Richard Bernabe come back from there and see your images. Keep on inspiring!

  • Love the point made here, and the shot backs it up. Subtly is frequently overlooked these days, and often it’s more powerful than the big “bang” to your eyes.

    Also, it’s funny how the above comment only put a “?” as their name. I hate when people hide behind the internet in their negativity. Would love to see what they would say if you were face to face. Coward.

    • Ian Plant

      What’s really ironic about his comment is the fact that this is a fairly subtle image in terms of color – there’s just not a lot of screaming color in this one.Of all the images to assume is severely manipulated, this is the one he picks? Sheesh.

  • Ian Plant

    I’ve just deleted a trollish comment from an anonymous poster. Trolls be on notice – I have zero tolerance for cowards who leave insulting comments (about me or, as the case was here, my workshop clients) under false names. I welcome open-minded, polite debate and discourse on all topics related to photography, but intentionally inflammatory remarks left by anonymous posters will be immediately deleted. Go spew your hate-filled nonsense somewhere else – you are not welcome here.

  • Ian, the troll is wrong and everyone here knows it. Your image is moody and expressive. Really beautiful, and I could agree more about letting the moment and the feeling it creates help to create the image.

    If I may, I recently had a similar experience while visiting a spot in central Oregon and created an image that I think captured the essence of the moment. Maybe the troll thinks this was manipulated, too, but it really was a result of the moment and imagination.

    Thanks for the post and image.

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Wesley, sorry, your comment got caught in my spam filter before I found it and fished it out. Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for sharing the link to your photo – very moody and expressive!

  • Really enjoyed this post and the great advice!

    What I like about your image is the great contrast. The foreground shadows are allowed to be just that – shadows. With the rising use of HDR imagery, I think a lot of photographers would be very tempted to try and boost those shadows. Lovely image!

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks Travis! I agree with you about HDR, though I must admit my motives in keeping the shadows dark for this image are a bit more practical – the hillsides were all burned from a fire in the park a few months ago, and they didn’t look all that attractive when I tried to pull out some extra detail. Last year everything was covered in lush green trees and shrubs, this year it was all black and charred! Sad, but it will grow back I guess . . .

  • As always yours is a perfect time-of-day image from an exotic place. Keep up the great imagery.

  • Great photo. Your photos always have the right ingredients that come together at the right times.

    If you ever do Any workshops in the smoky mtns or blue ridge mtns on Nc/sc/tn area I would be in.

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks Serge – I don’t have any immediate plans to be down there but if I do I’ll let you know!

  • Beautiful image. I really like the color. Thanks for the reminder to capture what is there. I realize I too often wish the scene was something else to make it fit some preconceived idea in my mind (or look some photo by somebody else).
    Then I also have a question regarding printing: I have not done many prints so far, but have found that I struggle to judge my levels for prints. First prints came out too dark with not enough dynamic range. Then when I tried to compensate for that I overdid it and the photos were over-satured and looked too manipulated.
    If you were to print the image above, what guidelines would you use to get the desired end result?

    Are there maybe some tutorials/articles on this topic that someone can direct me to?

    • Ian Plant

      Hi George, printing is a tough one to answer, as it depends on a lot of variables, but making sure you have a color calibrated workflow is essential. It’s pretty complex, however, and I don’t personally have any tutorials on the subject, and I can’t think of any good third party tutorials that I would recommend. Sorry I can’t help, but there should be a lot of info out there on the web.

  • lovely photo, good tip too..photography is so much like life, when we try so hard to be what we are not
    We do cheat the world & ourselves of the beauty that lies within us, with photography every place has its own Beauty that God has created, it is far better to capture and be awe struck by nature than to try and recreate God’s master pieces. Ian, you do a wonderful job capturing and appreciating the beauty God has Created for man. Thank You for sharing it.


  • I really love this shot Ian! I’m a big fan of LE and the motion of the clouds and water works together so nicely.

  • I agree. I do not mind creating a beautiful picture. But to make it something it never was is false. (I use Lightroom 3). To “jazz”something up is not to my liking. Off course there is place for radically changed photos (depends on use and purpose). A bad photo (light, focus, composition, etc) can never be made into a good photo. There is exceptions off course…..