1 May
Ian Plant By
Posted in: Creativity, Patagonia    16 Comments

Meat and Potatoes

Everything in nature has an essence, an unmistakable core that makes it what it is, and not something else. Many photographers (including myself) often speak of simplifying a subject, of “reducing it to its essence.” I think that most confuse this process of reducing a subject to its essence with simplicity of composition. A simple composition, however, does not necessarily reveal anything of the truth of its subject—nor, for that matter, does a complex composition necessarily obscure that truth. Rather, as nature photographers we must tune ourselves to our subject matter, and learn to discern its bottom line, its core, its decisive point—its gist, heart, kernel, matter, nitty-gritty, substance, or any other synonym you can find in a thesaurus. In other words, our job is to find our subject’s idiomatic meat and potatoes, and reveal it to the world.

I have always been fascinated by the curvaceous, almost sensual shapes of Patagonia’s windswept lenga trees, also known as southern beech. Over the years, I have photographed them many times, but I have always failed to capture their essence in a compelling way. On my most recent trip to Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, I found a grove of lenga that fired my imagination. Out came my camera, and I wandered around, trying to get it right this time.

A lenga forest is a chaotic place, choked with broken branches and dead fallen wood, packed tightly with swaying tree trunks twisted by the Patagonian winds. After attempting many different compositions, I felt like I wasn’t getting any closer to the lenga’s decisive point than I had in previous failed attempts, and I feared I wasn’t going to be able to solve the forest’s chaotic visual riddle. So I paused for a moment and started to think: what makes lenga trees so special to me? The answer came easily: their crooked shapes. What I needed, I decided, was a unifying structure, something that both told the lenga’s story and helped to visually anchor my composition.

And then I realized: the solution was there, right above me, right in front of my face, right in front of me this whole time, staring down at me, almost screaming to me “HERE I AM!” It was a lone curving lenga branch reaching over my head, encircled by a canopy of live trees tinged with autumn’s first blush, reaching for the freedom of the endless blue sky above. The sun was peering over its shoulder, giving me an encouraging wink. I fell to my knees, as much in gratitude for the forest’s offering as to find a position that allowed me to properly frame the scene. I had finally discovered the essence that had eluded me for the past three years.

Meat and potatoes sure taste good—especially when served on a silver platter.

"Lenga Dance" by Ian Plant

Technical details: Canon 5DII, 14mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/6 second.

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.


  • This is quite beautiful Ian. The balance of light and dark is just right. You’ve really brought out the essence of this tree.

  • Love the composition here Ian. And an excellent point about finding the essence of a place – it’s not always the obvious scene.

  • That’s so sweet Ian, love how that curving branch parses through and separates yet at the same time unifies the other trunks. Well done young man!

    It’s funny you post this today. I’m currently going through stuff from AZ and I spent the better part of two afternoons wandering around a sycamore filled canyon bottom where we stayed doing the same thing. Looking up made it all come together – albeit my neck is still sore 😉

    • Ian Plant

      Looking forward to seeing your AZ images old man!

  • I love this! What I really like about this shot is all the different colors in the leaves in the background. I think if it were all green it would have been too monocromatic. The different colors really help with the mood too. I think what really makes the photo is the siloutted tree branchess and especially that twisted one that you were mentioning. Excllent photo!

  • Wow. That’s easily one of my favorite forest-scapes to date. Everything about it screams originality and beauty…what a shot!

  • This is brilliant Ian. An aesthetically beautiful, abstract and fantastically creative image. Just lovely. JJ

  • Ian Plant

    Thanks for all the kind words so far, I appreciate it! Actually, this is easily my favorite image that I have ever taken in Patagonia. Kinda hard to believe that this would be the one with all the mountains and glaciers and whatnot lying around, but with this shot I was able to put my own personal stamp on the scenery. What makes me like it even more is that it was shot at high noon. I love finding something interesting to shoot during the middle of the day, a time that many other photographers ignore. Once again, thanks for all the kind words.

  • Very interesting and unique shot. It is really fun to look at – I went back three times!

    Is there a technique to get that kind of starburst from the sun? setting a small aperture into the sun always just gives me a point at each joint in the diaphragm

    • Ian Plant

      Hi John, sunstars work best when using a wide angle lens at small apertures. Some lenses are better than others at creating sunstars. It usually helps some to partially block the sun with a cloud or a tree – it helps reduce flare and also separates the sunstar better from the bright sky. Hope this helps!

  • Extra nice and unique shot :)) Does this image appear in your Patagonia ebook ?

    • Ian Plant

      Hi Philips, thanks! This is a recent image taken a few weeks ago; my Patagonia ebook contains images from 2010 and 2011 only.

  • Very nice, love the composition and also like the different colors but most of all is the way the smaller branches are reaching out from the corners like arms to touch the large branch.

  • Well done Ian! The extreme contrast of shadows and highlights work well for this image.

    • Ian Plant

      Thanks James!

  • Beautiful shot, and very nice article. Love the comp, and the “structured” chaos. Well done!