May 28 2015

Look Inward

2015-5-26 Storm Cloud 1a

Storm Cloud, 2015


I have been accused of being arrogant for suggesting that the source of my Vision lies within myself and is not dependent upon the outside world or those who have gone before me.

I don’t believe this to be an arrogant idea. But here are some additional thoughts that may convince the unconvinced that I am in fact, arrogant.


Look inward.

Everything you need is already there.

Discover your Vision.

See for yourself.


We are all creative as children.

But then we learn how to seek approval.

And something atrophies and almost dies.

We forget how to please ourselves.


There is a difference between Vision and Inspiration.

Inspiration comes from without, Vision comes from within.

A person can only do so much with Inspiration.

Inspiration without Vision is an unproductive effort.


Look inward.

Ignore what others are doing.

Do what you feel inspired to do.

Create work that you love.


Art is very selfish.

Or at least it should be.

If you are creating for others,

then you are not creating your best work.


Do not compare your work to other’s.

Judge your art only by how you feel about it.

Create art that you are proud of.

Create art that you love.


Look inward.

You harbor that secret ingredient.

The secret to success.

Your Vision.



May 21 2015

Photoshop and Six Tools…with a Video Demonstration


Yesterday my friend John Evans Jr. and I were talking about how I process my images. He shoots these great color shots of the St. Louis Gateway Arch and recently showed me the image above. He was trying it in black and white and called with a few questions about my processing techniques, and I was trying to describe some of my techniques over the phone.

It is difficult to convey some things with words and so I told him that I’d make a quick and dirty video of me processing an image. 

For years I hid my workflow from others because I thought it  unsophisticated and backwards. As I listened to other photographers talk about their sophisticated processes, I was embarrassed to let them see my rudimentary ones. What if they started asking me about layers…I don’t understand or use them!

Fortunately with time I came to the realization that it’s not about my processes, it’s about my images.  Nothing else matters.

There are many ways to use Photoshop and I doubt many photographers use more than a small percentage of its many tools.  There is no right way or wrong way to use it and not one workflow will be right for everyone.  

My procedure works for me and I’d like to share it to illustrate a point: that you don’t need to know a lot about Photoshop or have a complicated workflow to produce beautiful images.  

2015-1-1 Tongariki No 6 - Final 2-13-2015 1000

Here are the six tools that I use to process most of my images:

1. RAW Converter – I use Photoshop’s RAW converter to convert my RAW image into a 16 bit, 300 ppi TIFF file. There are also a number of image controls in the RAW converter and I try to do as much work here as possible.

2. B&W Conversion Tool – I like Photoshop’s b&w conversion tool and play with each color channel to see how it affects the different parts of my image. I tweak everything to taste. But be careful about changing the blue channels too much, they make your skies look great but add a lot of noise to the image. 

3. Levels – One of the most basic secrets to a great b&w image is to have a good black and white in the image. You cannot trust your eye and how the image looks on the monitor, you must look at your histogram to accurately determine this. I use “Levels” to set a true black and white point, then I adjust the midtone slider which can radically change the look of my image.

4. Dodging and Burning – This is where I do most of my processing and where I have the most fun!  I feel most at home with dodging and burning because that’s how I did things in the darkroom.  However the primary difference today is that I can take my time and exercise minute control over every part of the image.

I use a Wacom tablet to dodge and burn because you CANNOT do a good job with a mouse. It is difficult to describe with words how I dodge and burn and so I hope the video helps illustrate this.

5. Contrast Adjustment – Once the image looks great on the screen, experience teaches me that it will print flat, and so I add some contrast.  A monitor uses transmitted light and a print uses reflective light, so that means it will take a lot more work to get your print to look as snappy as it does on the monitor.  Contrast helps.

6 Clone Tool – I use the clone tool to spot my images.  Cloning is so much better than the old days when you had to spot every spot, on every single print and your mouth would taste like Spotone all day!

In sharing these six steps, my point isn’t that you should imitate my workflow, but rather that a workflow need not be complicated.  Did you notice that I didn’t make mention of special b&w conversion programs, plug-ins, curves or layers?  I also don’t use monitor calibrators, profiles, RIP’s or special inksets.  

I use Photoshop and six tools.  Ofttimes there’s beauty in simplicity!

Here is a quick and dirty video demonstration of my Six Steps.


P.S. My apologies for such an amateurish video, but I knew that if I waited until I learned to do it more professionally, it would never get done.

May 8 2015

Different Is Not My Goal

2015-1-1 Ahu Tahai 2d

When I photograph, I do not seek to create images that are “different” from everyone else’s, I don’t calculate how to create unique images and I don’t research what others are doing and then react.

Different is not my goal.

Instead, my objective is to produce work that comes from my Vision and that is honest and original to me.

2015-1-1 Moai at Rano Raraku No 2 - Final 2-20-2015 1000

My work is all that I focus on and have control over. As my mother used to say: what others are doing is none of your business!

When I went to Easter Island the only photographs that I had ever seen were the 1950’s documentary images contained in Thor Heyerdahl’s book “Aku Aku.” I never looked at anyone else’s images for two reasons; first I didn’t want to subconsciously copy someone else and secondly I didn’t want to consciously try to be different from someone else.

My goal, as much as it was humanly possible, was to work in a creative vacuum. I wanted to see the Moai through my Vision and find my own Passion.  

2015-1-1 Moai Sitting for Portrait No 7 - Final 3-5-2015 1000

Are my Easter Island images unique? I may never know the answer to that as long as I practice Photographic Celibacy and do not look at other photographer’s work.

And to tell you the truth, I don’t want to know. I love my images and am content with the knowledge that they were created honestly through my Vision.


Apr 24 2015

Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

2009-6-25 Lone Man No 20 - Final 4-21-2014 1000

Last week someone asked if I was flattered when people copied my work.  I said no, but that I wasn’t offended either.

What I actually feel is a bit of sadness. I’d rather see that person putting their energies into finding and following their Vision rather than walking where I have already walked.

Now these are friends and well-wishers who send me these imitations and so I am sincerely touched by the kind gesture. Sometimes they send a Lone Man or a Harbinger and sometimes it’s an Old Car Interior.

But honestly, I’d prefer they sent me something that they had created from their own Vision.

2008-7-26 Harbinger No 1 - Final 1-17-2009 1000

I very well understand imitation because I’ve copied other artists too, sometimes unconsciously and unfortunately sometimes consciously.  For years I tried to copy Ansel’s work, and not just his look.  Once I went to Yosemite and tried to recreate specific images of his!

I look back now and see how silly that was. Was my goal in life to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams copycat?

Someone once wisely said to me: “Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.” It’s true.

I know that many believe that imitation is a part of the learning process. I have many photography students contact me to say that their assignment is to copy one of my images.

I must say that I strongly disagree with this approach. I believe that their time would be much better spent finding their own Vision, and that imitation actually retards their personal Vision progress.  

2004-12-20 Old Car Interior -  Final 2-27-2006 1000

Colefucius says: They who walk in another’s footsteps, never finds their own path.

Is imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? I don’t think so.



Apr 17 2015

Why Black and White? Presentation at the Vancouver Photo Workshops on May 4th

2014-2-1 Dunes of Nude 107 - Final 2-26-2014 1000
Vancouver Photo Workshops proudly announces this public lecture and presentation with black and white fine-art photographer Cole Thompson.

Cole’s presentation will revolve around images from his portfolios and is interspersed with some of the things he has learned about Vision, listening to himself, the role of equipment, the rules of photography and etc.

For Cole ‘…color records the image, but black and white captures the feelings that lie beneath the surface.’

Following his lecture, we will open the floor to any questions you might have and Cole will be giving away three of his prints.

Three Print GiveAway

Tickets are limited, so please be sure to register early! Register here.

(Please note that in an effort to save our environment, no paper tickets will be issued for this event. Please use our secure online registration system. We will have a list of all registered students on hand at the door.)

More Event Details:

Tickets are only $25 each ($40 for two). For volume purchase of 10 or more tickets, please contact the Vancouver Photo Workshops for details. Our office can be reached @ 778.898.5256 or via email:

Please note: There will be a limited number of tickets available at the door on the evening of the event. Cash only please.


Date:                 Monday, May 4th, 2015

Location:         Vancouver Photo Workshops

Address:          14 West 7th Avenue, Vancouver, BC

Time:               7 pm (doors open at 6:30 pm)

Tickets:           Available online

 Cost:                $25 per person, $40 for two


Apr 10 2015

“A Night of Story Telling” Presentation in Victoria, BC on May 2nd, 2015

1973 Cole in Nanaimo BCCole with Nanaimo in the background, 1973


Very few people know that in 1973 I lived in the small town of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. British Columbia has some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen and “the Island” is their crown jewel in my opinion.

Back then Nanaimo was a sleepy little town and I still can remember the “unique” smell emanating from the Harmac pulp mill and the fun times I had playing with the children on the Nanoose Indian Reserve. I have many wonderful memories of my time there.

And so I’m excited to announce that I’m coming back to visit and to speak in Victoria on May 2nd. In Partnership with Luz Studios, The Cascadia Story Project presents “A Night of Story Telling with Cole Thompson.”  I hope to live up to the title by telling many tall tales, some of which may even be true!

If you live on the island or are in the Vancouver area I sure would love to meet you! 

What:       “A Night of Story Telling with Cole Thompson” 
When:       Saturday May 2nd, 2015 at 7 pm
Where:     CITIZEN Clothing (in Estevan Village)
Address:  2451 Estevan Ave Victoria, BC, V8R 2S4 Canada


2008-9-14 Lone Man No 7 - Bandon Beach - Final 11-30-2009 1000

My presentation will include images from my many portfolios; all sprinkled with tall tales and my photographic philosophies. If you’re planning on coming, please email me with a “heads up” so that I can watch for you!

And please be sure to check out LUZ Studios, the generous sponsor of this event. They are an all photographic studio with a focus on analogue, something very special in today’s modern world.



Apr 2 2015

A Conversation Between Vincent and Pablo…As I Imagined It Took Place

Van Gogh and Picasso.

Pablo:  Vinnie, how have you been?  That’s a wonderful new piece you’ve created, what do you call it?

Vincent:  I’m not sure, maybe “Big Moon in Sky” or something like that.  My friend Don suggests I call it “Starry Night.”  He wants to write a song about it!

Pablo:  A question for you; what paint did you use on this?  Is this the 3000 series?

Vincent:  No!  It’s the new 5000, I wouldn’t be caught dead using the 3000, have you seen the tonal range on those paints?  Appalling!

Pablo:  I agree, personally I wouldn’t ever purchase a painting if it used those paints.

Vincent: Agreed, what are those other painters thinking?

Pablo:  This canvas is nice, what is it?

Vincent:  It’s a new canvas, out of Germany and I like the texture on it but it’s still not exactly what I’m looking for.  I’ve been searching and searching for the right canvas and I’m just not happy with anything yet.

Pablo:  I know what you mean, I’ve been searching for years for the perfect canvas and will not rest until I do.  Hey, I’ve been noticing the perspective on this piece and it leads me to believe that you’re using a 54? easel?  Placing your canvas a little higher are you?

Vincent:  Yes but not a 54, it’s a 57 and combined with those new Hartford stools (they have a great padded cushion) I sit so much higher and really like the feeling when I’m working.  Plus, they adjust so easily.

Pablo:  Wow, I’ll have to check those out, I think Al’s apothecary is carrying them.

Vincent:  I heard a rumor that you’re trying some of those new camel hair brushes?  Tell me it isn’t so Pablo!

Pablo:  Where did you hear that?  It’s true, but I’m not telling anyone.  They are so much better than the cat hair brushes that I normally use.  Have you tried them?

Vincent:  I wouldn’t be caught dead with one of those, do you know what would happen people found out that I was using Camel hair!  I don’t have to tell the scandal…

Pablo:  I see you’re using those new frames from Friar Wilson, how do you like them?

Vincent:  Pretty good, they’re a lot cheaper so my margins go way up.  I need a little extra “ching” so that I can purchase that new satchel from Mary the Seamstress.  Have you seen it, it matches my frock and is really nice for carrying around my supplies.

Pablo:  Yes, those are nice, but not as nice as those wild colored ones made by the Maid Vivian!

Vincent:  You’re nuts, those look horrible!  You’ve a poor sense of color Pablo.

Pablo:  Me???  You’re the one stuck in the past man, get with the times!

Vincent:  Look at us, talking about paints, easels and brushes.  Does any of this really matter?  I mean, do you think photographers sit around and talk like this?  I suspect not.

Pablo:  Good point.  Maybe there’s more to painting than equipment and tools?

Vincent:  Perhaps it ought to be more about the art?


P.S. An accomplished painter friend read this post and said that this is exactly how painters act! And I thought that only we photographers were overly focused on our equipment.

Mar 26 2015

New Video: Moai, Sitting for Portrait

Set the video to 720 for a better viewing experience!

Mar 20 2015

If You Don’t Have Vision and Passion For A Project…CHOOSE A NEW PROJECT

2015-1-1 Tongariki No 6 - Final 2-13-2015 1000

 People write to me about their projects and say such things as:

I just cannot get motivated…

I’m in a slump…

My project is on hold…

I haven’t shot anything in a while…

I don’t know what’s wrong…

I need to get back to it…

I just can’t seem to finish it…

My rule of thumb is: If I am not energized and excited about my project, then it’s time for me to:


For me, a successful project must have two ingredients: Vision and Passion. If I don’t feel these I know the project is doomed, it will be a chore to work on and that lack of passion will be felt by the viewer.

Many feel that the key to a successful project is to have a unique subject, an exotic location or an interesting technique. And while those qualities may help, only Vision and Passion can ensure success.

When you have the right project, you cannot wait to get home to work on it. The right project has you getting up early and skipping meals. When you have the right project you find yourself working long hours and wishing there were more. 

And most importantly; when you have a Vision and Passion for your project, that energy and conviction will be felt through your images. 

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 4 - Final 7-5-2008 750

After I created the Auschwitz images many people suggested I apply the ghost theme to other locations. The idea sounded logical: the Auschwitz series had been well received and so why not leverage that popularity by using the same approach at other locations?

So I started to work on “The Ghosts of Great Britain” where I created ghosts at English castles. But the project fell flat because the images were not compelling and it all felt gimmicky.

2009-5-6 Old Wardour Castle No 1 - Final 6-1-2009 750

So what went wrong? The project lacked Passion.  

At Auschwitz I felt inspired to create those images and I had a Vision for the project. I gave no thought as to how the series would be received and in fact I didn’t care!

But “The Ghosts of Great Britain” was completely contrived and calculated to be popular. I did not feel that same Vision or Passion for the project and it failed. I scrapped the series and only kept the one image above.

This was a great lesson for me and a mistake that I will never make again. 

Many people ask where I get my ideas from and I tell them that every time that I have an idea, I write it down. And then I reveal that I’ve never once used any of those ideas! Every successful project that I’ve pursued has come to me spontaneously, unexpectedly and as a sudden burst of inspiration.

And then they ask: But what happens if you don’t have a project that excites and inspires you?

And I reply: Then I wait until I do.


P.S. I’ve mentioned “successful project” a few times now and I want to explain what I mean by that. I do not consider a project successful because it wins awards, is published, is exhibited or sells. 

Success for me is creating a series that I love and am proud of, and that is the only kind of success that matters.

Mar 13 2015

The Story Behind the Image: Moai, Sitting for Portrait

Moai Sitting for Portrait 4 Images Horizontal


Let met start at the beginning: It was 1967 and I had borrowed the book Aku Aku from my high school teacher, friend and mentor, John Holland. This is how I was introduced to the Moai of Easter Island.

Aku Aku Book Cover

I became fascinated with the Moai and would spend hours and hours trying to imagine how and why they were built and even more perplexing: why they stopped? Even though this was my only “contact” with the them, they have been on my mind these many, many, many (you get the idea) years.

And interestingly, I have always imagined the Moai as being living beings. 

Fast forward to 2014: I am planning my next photography trip and discussing with my wife where I might go. Easter Island had always been on my bucket list but I never really believed that I’d be able visit due to it’s remote location. But over the next several days I began to question that assumption and a few weeks later the trip was planned.

In keeping with my Photographic Celibacy I did not look at what other photographers had done before me. I wanted my Vision to be pure and unsullied by the ideas and Vision of others. However this approach has some disadvantages: what if I created work that was similar to what others had done, simply because I didn’t know what others had done?

I was willing to take that risk and proceeded blindly.

My trips are never planned, I simply go to a location, wander about and trust that something will inspire me. However this can cause great anxiety if I don’t find something that sparks an idea quickly and I start to worry that I’ll come home empty handed. I’ve had that happen to me several times before but fortunately something always seems to capture imagination and passion.

As we flew to Easter Island I like a child on Christmas eve, wondering what gifts I would find in the morning. And as I wondered what the morning would bring I fell asleep and dreamt, I dreamt that I had met the Moai and invited them to come to my studio to sit for a formal portrait…and they did!

2015-1-1 Moai Sitting for Portrait No 10 - Final 3-5-2015 1000

When I awoke I thought to myself, why not? I had always thought of them as being alive and I would create studio portraits of them as though they were. This idea really got me excited, as excited as I’d ever been for a project. It just seemed like a natural for me!

I was certainly out of my depth in several areas: I have no portrait experience, I could not control the lighting and I had never done anything this complex in Photoshop before. But a lack of skills has never stopped me before and instead I viewed it as a challenge.

In my mind I laid out my plan of action: I would photograph the Moai as though they were sitting in my studio, a tight shot and at appropriate angles. I’d try to catch them in diffused light and later I’d try to make it look like studio lighting. And lastly I’d outline the Moai and drop them into a digital backdrop that I would create.

Two Portraits

I had to get the shots right because I had only one chance at this. I took a huge number of photographs from every angle and vantage point I could think of. I followed the sun and each morning went to one side of the island and each afternoon I went to other. Because I was looking for subdued light and could not control what I got, I had to wait for many hours at each location for a cloud to pass overhead. 

Once home I started off by creating a portrait background for my Moai. I then blurred it to give the image a shallow depth of field and a three dimensional look. Later when I looked at all of the images as a group, the background looked redundant and so I created several slightly different versions to break things up a bit.

Moai Portrait Background

Next I needed to learn how to outline the Moai.  I was very fortunate to be working with objects that had hard edges which made the outlining much easier. A great deal of this work had to be done manually at 300% magnification because the Moai’s background interfered with some of the more automatic methods of selection. This is where a tablet really shines, I simply could not have done this outlining with a mouse!

Moai Sitting for Portrait Outlined

Next I pasted the outlined Moai into the background but felt that it looked unnatural. I learned that an object looks “pasted in” when the edges of the object are sharper than the object itself. So I took a 3 pixel blur tool and manually blurred the edge of the Moai at 300% magnification.

Then came the lighting: how could I make the lighting look as though the Moai had been lit in a studio? With no lighting experience, I simply experimented with dodging and burning, trying to make the light source appear to come from a particular direction.

With a small amount of practice I found I could bring a Moai to this point in about an hour. But the final refining of the image is what took the longest. 

I would let the images sit for a week and then would come back to see them with a fresh eye. On the first pass I was unhappy with the lighting and modified it quite a bit; lessening the directional lighting effect and opening up the shadows more. I let it sit for another week and tweaked some more. And then I repeated this a third and fourth time until there were no more changes.

Here are a couple “before and after” images to show you the original shot and the final image.

Moai Sitting for Portrait No 2 BEFORE and AFTER

Outlining was easy when the Moai were against the sky and I could use the automatic methods of selection.  But when the background was cluttered as in the lower half of this one, I had to manually outline.

Moai Sitting for Portrait No 38 BEFORE and AFTER

When I shot this image I was not thinking portraits, but these first three Moai on the left worked out perfectly anyway. 

Moai Sitting for Portrait No 34 - BEFORE and AFTER

The images from the quarry were harder to put into the studio because they were photographed against the grass. I had to stay on designated paths and that limited my choice of angles and consequently the background. These images were completely hand outlined and often I had to clone out the weeds that were in the way.

36 Moai Portraits

In the end I created forty portraits of the Moai and I love them. The trip was a wonderful adventure in itself, but to pursue a project that treated the Moai as though they were alive, really was dream come true. 

This project reinforced three of my guiding principles as a fine art photographer:

1. I must pursue a project that I am passionate about and have a Vision of.

2. Skills come second to Vision. If I don’t have the skills, I can always learn the them.

3. I must create for myself and love what I’ve created.


P.S. You can see the full portfolio here: