Jul 11 2014

Why I Don’t Critique Other People’s Work

2010 3 6 Minneapolis Power Lines Final 4 13 2010 750 Why I Dont Critique Other Peoples WorkMinneapolis Power Lines

People often ask me if I would look at their work and critique it. And while I would love to accommodate, I am uncomfortable critiquing another persons work and here’s why:

First, I’m unqualified.  All I know is what I like and what I don’t like, and that should be irrelevant to you. Many think that because I create images they admire, this qualifies me to comment on their work, it does not.  I am only qualified to judge my own images.

Second and most importantly, I believe that your opinion about your work should be the only one that matters. Your opinion is more important than mine or any other and it is the only one that can help you achieve true satisfaction from your work.  

I used to ask others about my work, but in truth I was really looking for validation. I wanted the person to say “these are wonderful images, you are a wonderful photographer.” But even if they said those words, it didn’t make it so. Perhaps they were just being kind, and even if they were sincere, it was still just their opinion.

At the end of the day I need to respect and love my images and If I don’t, then it doesn’t matter how many people tell me that my images are wonderful.

How do you learn to trust your opinion over others? I think it starts with having a Vision of your work. Once you know how your images should look, then it becomes irrelevant what others think. Having a Vision of your work gives you great purpose and confidence.

When you don’t have that Vision, then the opinion of others is the only tool you have to gauge your work. And because you can never please everyone: true satisfaction can never come because you are subject to the changing whims and fancies of public opinion.

People frequently tell me what’s wrong with my images or what I should have done differently, but it doesn’t phase me. I know what I was trying to accomplish and only I know how close I came to fulfilling that Vision, they do not.

Tonight I was printing a copy of The Angel Gabriel and as I held the image in my hands I thought: this is beautiful, I love this image.

2006 5 20 The Angel Gabriel Final 10 15 2007 150 Why I Dont Critique Other Peoples Work

That satisfaction cannot come from another telling me how wonderful the image is, and it cannot be taken from me even if the image is unpopular.

My opinion is the only one that matters to me, and yours should be the only one that matters to you  And that is why I don’t critique other’s images.



Jul 4 2014

You Cannot Do B&W Work Like This With Digital!

2013 8 4 Ancient Stones Composite Final 8 4 2013 You Cannot Do B&W Work Like This With Digital!


I was exhibiting my “Ancient Stones” portfolio when someone approached.

We both stood there looking at the images when he said: “You just cannot do b&w work like this with digital!”  

I didn’t have the heart to tell him, but thought of this anecdote: 

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York.  As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ 
He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific Stove.'”  Sam Haskins
Equipment is necessary, but it’s not nearly as important as many of us think it is. 

Jun 28 2014

Harbinger: The Story Behind the Series

2008 7 26 Harbinger No 1 Final 1 17 2009 750 Harbinger: The Story Behind the SeriesHarbinger No. 1

Several summers ago my son Jem and I were taking a road trip through the western states, it was meant to be both a photography trip as well as a father and son trip. We were in Utah and it was about 150 degrees (or so it felt) when I spied these great mud hills off to the north.

Sensing a good image, we hiked to a vantage point where I could photograph this set of wonderfully symmetric hills. I loved the dark mud and the deep blue sky, but the image was lacking something. I wanted to stay longer to see if I could solve this photographic riddle, but my son had other ideas.

Photographing with a child is a real challenge for me. I go into “working mode” which means that I withdraw into my own world and want to be left alone. My son on the other hand goes into “bored child mode” which means he repeats the following, interspersed with loud sighs:

  • It’s hot.
  • How much longer?
  • Can we go now?
  • You said 5 minutes…5 minutes ago!
  • Can I go back to the car and watch a movie?
  • Are you done?

Given the mediocrity of the image, the oppressive heat and my son chipping away at my stamina…I gave up, packed up and headed back to the truck.  

But once back I spied this single cloud moving very fast across the horizon. I could see by its trajectory that in about a minute it would pass right over those mud hills that I had just been photographing.

This was a beautiful little cloud that was heading towards a wonderful setting…when suddenly I realized that this could be my “Moonrise, Hernandez” moment!

I told my son that I was going back for one more shot (he let out a loud and exaggerated groan) and I ran just as fast as I could. I quickly set up my gear and was able to get a single shot with the cloud perfectly situated above those mud hills.  And that is the image above.

As I looked at the image on the camera’s screen, the name Harbinger immediately popped into my head and that is what I named the image. 

When I would show this new image to people, they would ask “are you going to do a series of them?” I honestly didn’t think I’d ever find another solitary cloud like this one and would say that while I would love to, I doubted that it would be possible.

But over the next couple of years something interesting happened.  Being sensitized to this concept, I started to find other Harbinger opportunities until I had a small collection of them:

Harbinger Composite WEB Harbinger: The Story Behind the Series

I love this series for its mysterious simplicity, and I love the artist statement for its brevity and ambiguity:

Harbinger:  \?här-b?n-j?r\   noun

      1. one that goes ahead and makes known the approach of another; herald.
      2. anything that foreshadows a future event; omen; sign.

Unlike my Auschwitz-Birkenau series that took just under two hours to create, I expect Harbinger to take many years to complete.

But that’s okay, I’m in no hurry.


P.S.  If you have not heard about my exhibition print sale, there are a number of images still available. You can see the list at: http://www.colethompsonphotography.com/ExhibitionPrintSale2014-06-20.htm


Jun 23 2014

Newsletter and Exhibition Print Sale

2014 5 26 Harbinger No 21 Final 6 1 2014 1000 Newsletter and Exhibition Print Sale


My newsletter is out which introduces five new images and announces my Exhibition Print sale.  This is where I sell exhibited prints at a deep discount.

You can read the newsletter and learn more about the sale here:




Jun 14 2014

Visualize versus Previsualize

2004 11 1 Skeleton Final 4 24 2009 750 Visualize versus Previsualize

I have been thinking about two words lately: visualize and previsualize.  What do they mean and how are they different?

I’ve used both words to describe my creative process and yet I’m not really sure if I’m visualizing or previsualizing?

So I looked them up in the dictionary:

Visualize: form a mental image of; imagine.

Previsualize: The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.

Hmmmm…so previsualize is not a “real” word?

I then turned to the ultimate authority of the universe (Wikipedia) to see what I could learn about previsualization.  Here is what I found:

Visualization is a central topic in Ansel Adams‘ writings about photography, where he defines it as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”. 

The term previsualization has been attributed to Minor White who divided visualization into previsualization, referring to visualization while studying the subject; and postvisualization, referring to remembering the visualized image at printing time.

However, White himself said that he learned the idea, which he called a “psychological concept” from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

According to Adams and White, visualization and previsualization are the same and this process takes place before the exposure.

2005 5 20 Rushing Waters Final 5 28 2005 750 Visualize versus Previsualize

This has been my experience, that visualization takes place before the exposure. When I’m looking at the subject I can literally see the final image in my “mind’s eye.”

This Vision typically comes quickly and definitively and it guides me during the shot and the processing, helping me transform the captured image into to that visualized image. There is no question as to what the final image will look like, it is burned into my memory.

2010 9 17 Monotlith No 10 Final 9 26 2010 750 Visualize versus Previsualize

Inspiration may come after the exposure and during processing, but that would not be visualization according to Adams or previsualization according to White’s thinking.

I’m grateful for the inspiration whenever it may come, but I do find it most useful when it comes before the exposure.

What has your experience been with visualization or previsualization?



Jun 5 2014

Why Black and White? Presentation in Ohio

2006 5 20 The Angel Gabriel Final 10 15 2007 750 Why Black and White? Presentation in OhioThe Angel Gabriel


Hello to my friends in Ohio!

On June 17th at 7 pm I’ll be presenting my images and philosophies to the Cuyahoga Valley Photographic Society. 

Here is where we”ll be meeting:

Happy Day’s Lodge
500 West Streetsboro Road (Route 303)
Peninsula, OH

The event is free and I offer a double-your-money-back guarantee: if you’re not both entertained and educated by the presentation…I’ll give you double your money back!

Did I mention the event was free? 


P.S.  My next newsletter will be out soon that will introduce several new images and will also announce my upcoming Exhibition Print Sale.  Please sign up for the newsletter because it’s first come, first served on these limited number of prints.  

You Can Sign Up Here

P.P.S. If you’ve not read the story of The Angel Gabriel above, click on the image for the story behind the image.

May 31 2014

Finding Vivian Maier

2014 5 26 Harbinger No 20b Finding Vivian MaierHarbinger No. 20


I’ve just watched the most extraordinary film entitled “Finding Vivian Maier.”

The story begins with a man named John Maloof who purchases a box of negatives at an auction and becomes intrigued by the images and whoever created them. It is a detective story that reveals one of the most important street photographers of our time…that no one has ever heard of: Vivian Maier.

What I found most impressive about this story was not the images (which are absolutely amazing) but that Vivian was a complete unknown.  She was a nanny who had never shown her work to a single soul as far as anyone knows.

No one knows for sure why Vivian kept her work to herself, but I came away from the film feeling that external validation was not necessary or important to her. I believe that her creations were all the validation that she needed. 

I have always believed that I should create for myself and that what others think (family, the public, gallery owners, curators, critics and experts) should be irrelevant. If I love my work, then that should be enough.

At the end of the film John Maloof talks about how difficult it has been to have Vivian’s work recognized by the establishment. In my view this recognition is so very irrelevant, her images speak for themselves and I do not need anyone else to tell me that they are wonderful, and I doubt having the establishments approval would have affected Vivian’s view of her own work.

I recommend this film, it was both entertaining and inspiring! 


After you’ve seen it, I’d love to know what you think of her work and why you think she didn’t show it to anyone else.



May 9 2014

How I Found My Vision

2006 5 20 The Angel Gabriel Final 10 15 2007 750 How I Found My VisionThe Angel Gabriel


Why do I focus on Vision so much? It’s because I believe that Vision is what makes an image great. It’s what makes the difference between a technically perfect image and one with feeling. It’s what makes your images unique.

Great images do not come about because of equipment and processes, but rather from Vision that drives these tools to do wonderful things. What good are great technical skills if you don’t have an idea worthy of them?  

If I had to choose between the best equipment in the world and no Vision or having a Kodak Brownie and my Vision…

Brownie How I Found My Vision

I’d take the Brownie.

A lot of people ask: “How do I go about finding my Vision?” I’m not sure I can answer that for everyone, but here is how I discovered mine:


The Wake-Up Call

Several years ago I was attending Review Santa Fe where over the course of a day my work was evaluated by a number of gallery owners, curators, publishers and “experts” in the field. 

Review Santa Fe How I Found My Vision

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like your trying to copy Ansel Adams.”  I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.  What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but over the next two years the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

I desperately wanted to know if I had a Vision, but there was a huge problem: what exactly was Vision and how did I develop it?  

What is Vision1 How I Found My Vision

I researched Vision but I couldn’t relate to the definitions and explanations that I found. Was it a look, a style or a technique? Was it something you were born with or something you developed?

And then there was the nagging doubt: what if I didn’t have a Vision? I feared that it was something you either “had” or you “didn’t have”  and perhaps I did not?

And how was I to go about finding my Vision?

With so many unanswered questions and with no idea on how to proceed, I simply forged ahead with what made sense to me.  Here is what I did:

Sort Your Portfolio

I took 100 of my best images, printed them out and then divided them into two groups: the ones I REALLY loved…and all the rest. I decided that the ones that went in the “loved” pile had to be images that “I” loved, and not just ones that I was attached to because they had received a lot praise, won awards or sold the best. And if I loved an image and nobody else did, I still picked it. 

Make the Commitment

I committed that from that point on, I would only pursue those kinds of images, the ones that I really loved. Too often I had been sidetracked when I chose to pursue images simply because others liked them.

Practice Photographic Celibacy

I started practicing Photographic Celibacy and stopped looking at other photographer’s work. I reasoned that to find my Vision, I had to stop immersing myself in the Vision and images of others.

I used to spend hours and hours looking at other photographer’s work and would find myself copying their style or even their specific images. I knew that I couldn’t wipe the blackboard of my mind clean of those images, but I could certainly stop focusing on their Vision and instead focus on mine.

When I looked at a scene I didn’t want to see it through another photographer’s eyes, I wanted to see it through mine!

Simplify Your Processes

I embarked on a mission to simplify my photography.  In the past I had focused on the technical and now I was going to focus on the creative. I disposed of everything that was not necessary: extra equipment, gadgets, plug-ins, programs, processes and all of those toys we technophiles love. I went back to the basics which simplified my photography, gave me more time and it reminded me that I wanted to put more focus on my creative abilities.

Ignore Other’s Advice

I ignored the advice that well intentioned friends and experts gave me. So much of this advice had never felt right for me and I was torn between following their recommendations or my own intuition. In the end I decided that only by pleasing myself could I create my best work, and that no matter how expert someone was, they were not an expert about my Vision or what I wanted.

Change Your Mindset

I worked to change my mindset from photographer to artist. I had always thought of myself as a photographer who documented, but I could see that this role was limiting and the truth was that I wanted to be an artist that created.  

To help me make this mental shift I started calling myself an artist (I felt like such a fraud at first)  figuring that I must play the part to become the part. I also stopped using certain words and phrases, for example instead of saying “take a picture” I would say “create an image.”  

That may seem like small and inconsequential thing, but it helped to continually remind me that I wanted to be an artist who created, and not a photographer who documented.

Question Your Motives

I questioned my motives and honestly answered some hard question such as: why am I creating? Who am I trying to please? What do I want from my photography? How do I define success?

It seemed to me that Vision was something honest and that if I were going to find my Vision, I had to be honest about the reasons I was pursuing it.

Stop Comparing

I stopped comparing my work to other photographers. I noticed that when I compared, it led to doubts about my abilities and it left me deflated. All I could see were their strengths and my weaknesses, which was an unfair comparison.  

I decided that if my goal was to produce the best work that I could, then it did not matter what others were doing. I had to remind myself that this was not a race or a contest, I was not competing against others…I was competing with myself.

Stop Caring What Others Think

I made a conscious decision to stop caring what others thought of my work. I recognized that in trying to please others, I was left feeling insecure and empty.

At the end of the day, it was just me, my work and what I thought of it. As long as I cared what others thought, I was a slave and could never be free.

Get Inspired

I re-read Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” which I had first read at age 17. It has been one of the most influential books of my life because it gave me hope that I could become truly independent, that I could think for myself and define my own future. I know this book can cause strong reactions in people, both for good and ill, but it was a tremendous help in finding my Vision. 


I really was proceeding blindly, but I believed that if I listened to my own desires, pursued what I loved and eliminated all other voices, I would learn something about my Vision.

I did this for two years and there were many times that I became discouraged and didn’t feel like I was making any progress. I didn’t really know what I expected to happen, perhaps I thought I’d have a revelatory experience where my Vision would suddenly appear in a moment of inspiration!

But that didn’t happen.

And then one day it just occurred to me: I understood…I understood what my Vision was. 

It came in an anticlimatical and quiet moment of understanding, and after all of that worrying and angst…it now seemed so incredibly simple. Vision was not something I needed to acquire or develop, it had been there all along and all that I needed to do was to “discover” it.

Vision was simply the sum total of my life experiences that caused me to see the world in a unique way. When I looked at a scene and imagined it a certain way…that was my vision.

2008 5 10 Auschwitz No 14 Final 2 1 2009 750 How I Found My Vision

My Vision had always been there but over the years it had been buried by layers of “junk.” Each layer obscured my vision until it was lost and I doubted my creative abilities.  Some of those layers were valuing other’s opinions over my own, fear of failing, imitating others and creating for recognition.

Each time I created for external rewards, each time I put accolades before personal satisfaction, each time I cared what others would think…I buried my natural creativity under another layer until it was buried and forgotten.

Interestingly I came to conclude that Vision had little to do with photography or art and had more to do with being a well-adjusted, confident and independent human being. Once I had the confidence to pursue my art on my terms, and define success for myself, I was free to pursue my Vision without fear of rejection or need for acceptance.

Something else I learned about Vision: it is not a look or a style. It is not focusing on one subject or genre and following your Vision will not make your work look all the same. Vision gives you the freedom to pursue any subject, create in any style and do anything that you want.

2007 7 24 Swimming Towards the Light Final 6 30 2009 750 How I Found My Vision

But finding my Vision was not the end of the journey, because now I had to follow it which was equally as hard. I am still tempted to create for recognition, to care what others think and to want to be acknowledged. It takes constant discipline to stay centered, to remember why I’m creating and to follow my definition of success.

If you could have known me before I found my Vision, you would have found a technician that doubted his creative abilities, a photographer who felt that it was wrong to “manipulate” the image, a person who sought the generally accepted definition of success: money, fame and accolades, and you would have found an insecure person who needed others to like his images in order to feel good about his work.

Thankfully, that person is gone.

While my initial search was for my Vision, what I really found was myself which allowed my natural Vision to flourish once again.  




May 2 2014

Why Not Let the Camera or Photoshop Create Your B&W Image?

2009 6 4 Harbinger No 11 Final 6 30 2009 750 Why Not Let the Camera or Photoshop Create Your B&W Image?

I’ve spoken to a number of people who have  assumed that I create my b&w images by putting my camera into monochrome mode or by simply desaturating my color images in Photoshop.

That’s not how I create my black and white images, but why not?  Why not let the camera or Photoshop do the work for me?

Here’s why: If I let my camera create the black and white image, then all I’d have is a color image that had been stripped of color. A great black and white image is much more than that, it’s an image that I’ve added something to, my Vision.

I capture my images in color so that I can convert them into black and white myself.  What can I can do that the camera or Photoshop cannot do? 

I know the potential of the image: the camera and Photoshop does not.
I know what detail is in the image that can be brought out: the camera and Photoshop does not.
I know how to create the look I want by manipulating colors into different shades of gray: the camera and Photoshop does not.
I know how to dodge and burn to emphasize certain elements and to de-emphasize other elements: the camera and Photoshop does not.
But most importantly, I have a Vision of what I want the image to look like: the camera and Photoshop does not.

If you compare one of my original color shots to a desaturated image, and then compare both to my final image…you’ll see a world of difference.  Here’s my Iceland No. 4 to illustrate:

Iceland No. 4 BEFORE Why Not Let the Camera or Photoshop Create Your B&W Image?

This is what the color image looked like right out of the camera.


Iceland No. 4 BEFORE DESATURATED Why Not Let the Camera or Photoshop Create Your B&W Image?

Here’s what the image looks like if you let the camera create the b&w image or you simply desaturate it in Photoshop.


Iceland No 4 AFTER Why Not Let the Camera or Photoshop Create Your B&W Image?

And here’s what it looks like after I’ve converted it to b&w using my knowledge of the original scene, my technical skills and most importantly…my Vision.


Letting the camera create the b&w image for me or simply desaturating it in Photoshop will never produce a great black and white image. But by processing the image myself, I’m adding to the image and leaving my mark. 

Now I’ve talked to a lot of people who have seen my before-and-after images and I know how some people will react: they will conclude that the “secret” to my images  are my processing skills and they will think that all they need to do to create better images is to improve their processing skills.

But that is exactly NOT my point! 

Learning processing skills without the Vision to drive them, is not much different than letting the camera create the black and white image for you or simply desaturating it in Photoshop. If you don’t know what you want, then better processing skills will not improve your images.

Why don’t I let the camera or Photoshop create my black and white images? Because they are simply tools and cannot convey my Vision.


P.S. For those who might wonder: I convert my images to b&w using Photoshop’s b&w conversion tool. I do not use plugins or b&w conversion programs.


Apr 25 2014

Preconceived Ideas

2013 10 19 They Walk Among Us Final 11 28 2013 1000 Preconceived Ideas


A story…

Every autumn I go to Bandon, Oregon to photograph Monoliths. I have very specific conditions that I prefer; clear skies with wispy clouds that allow me to use long exposures on the Monoliths.

Unfortunately this last October I had not called ahead and made this request with Zeus, the god of clouds, rain, thunder and lightning. What I encountered was fog and lots of it, and unfortunately there is nothing for me to shoot in the fog.

So I decided to go up the coast and check out Cannon Beach, I heard they had some great Monoliths and I was hoping that the weather would be better there. Unfortunately it was just as foggy and so I decided to give up and head home where I would rent some movies and veg out.  

Because as long as the fog was obscuring my Monoliths, there was nothing for me to photograph there.

But something inside of me said: Wait a minute, there is always something great waiting to be discovered…in every light, in every weather and  in every location. It may not fit into your preconceived ideas of what you want, but there is something here for those who can “see.” And so I stayed.

Through the fog I faintly saw people walking towards me and it reminded me of spirits. A title immediately came to mind as I imagined the image: “They Walk Among Us.” Using the fog, a long exposure and by over-exposing, I created this very high-key image…in the fog.

It reminded me that having preconceived ideas (knowing what I want) might sometimes be a strength, but at other times it may make me blind to unexpected opportunities.

Whenever I’m at a location and feeling that there’s nothing for me to see, I’ll ask myself this question: If I had a time machine and could transport all of the great masters of photography here, could they find a great shot? 

Of course they could!

So what is the lesson for me? That sometimes I need to look beyond my preconceived ideas of what I want…and see what is being offered.