Nat Geo Travel: Before you headed to Montana, how did you prepare your assignment? What kind of research did you do? How about gear prep?
Jonathan Irish: The great thing about this assignment was that the shot list [the editors’ list of images to get] was generated through local knowledge and submissions—hence the name of our feature, Where the Locals Go. I did my own research on the best times to shoot each place, person, or event, and brainstormed creative ways to show each location in a different light. The great research the Nat Geo Travel team did was also very helpful. I know Montana pretty well, having led bike tours there in Glacier National Park. I was excited to return to my old stomping grounds.
As far as gear goes, I bring everything and the kitchen sink when the assignment doesn’t require me to travel lightly. I always carry a variety of zoom and prime lenses with me that will cover the different situations I encounter, from 14mm lenses all the way up to 500mm. I make sure to pack professional camera bodies—a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 5D Mark III—in case one body dies or gets damaged while on assignment.
NGT: What is the best part of photographing Montana during the spring?
J.I.: The lack of crowds! In a lot of ways, it’s a great time to be in Montana, as the crowds have yet to really flock there, and yet it is one of the most beautiful times to travel there. The spring in Montana is vastly underrated.
NGT: Every assignment comes with challenges. What were the biggest challenges photographing during the spring in Montana?
J.I.: When the weather is cooperating, there is simply no more beautiful place than the big open skies of Montana. It is breathtaking. But springtime weather is pretty much guaranteed to NOT cooperate all of the time, which can be a challenge with a long shot list and a tight schedule. You have to get creative as a photographer when the weather turns bad for an outdoor shot and you have no time to return the next day. That’s also what I love about assignment work—challenging situations that allow me to grow as a photographer.
NGT: You like to take clean, sometimes abstracted photos. Was Montana a perfect playground for this?
J.I.: Montana was a great playground for some of the clean and abstract shots I like to take. This state has a lot of open space and grand views, but there’s a lot going on that is just below eye level as well. Playing on those different planes, with so much variety in each of the planes, really allows for some fun, creative work.
NGT: What was the most surprising part of your trip?
J.I.: Visiting an old-time brothel in Butte, Montana, while a paranormal investigator told me tales of the working girl ghosts she has seen and heard. Well, that is not as bad as it sounds, but it’s a true story. While in Butte, I popped into the historic Dumas brothel for a quick behind-the-scenes tour. Currently under restoration, the Dumas brothel operated from 1890 to 1982 and served the miners during Butte’s mining boom. The old, and small, rooms where the ladies worked were absolutely fascinating. During the renovation, the owners have found all kinds of interesting “artifacts” left by the workers. The paranormal investigator just happened to be there when I visited, and I got to hear and see some of the ghost tales she has investigated over many years. Apparently, one of the madams died in the building and has not fully left it. You never know what you will find in Montana.