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.


Apr 18 2014

The Toughest Interview I’ve Ever Done – Vision Drawings: Session #1

Sampler Images The Toughest Interview Ive Ever Done   Vision Drawings: Session #1

My friend and photographer John Kosmopoulos recently interviewed me for his new series, Vision Drawings: Session #1

Honestly, it was one of the toughest interviews that I’ve ever done, not because John was tough, but because the questions were difficult for me to answer.  

At one point I frustratedly told John that I just didn’t think that I could do it, but with his help and encouragement, I completed the interview.

The questions were tough because they dealt with the feelings and motivations behind my work. It’s not that I don’t have these feelings, but I find it difficult to put them into words.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I became a photographer, so that I could avoid words and use images instead.

You can read the interview here: 


Thank you John, for this opportunity and for encouraging me.



Apr 12 2014

Vision First, Skills Second

Last weekend my wife and I stopped at a garage sale that was hosted by three very old ladies who were selling some very old things (both the ladies and their items were “vintage”).

Amongst their knick knacks I spotted a leather camera bag with a post-it note that said “make offer.” I didn’t need a bag but decided to look inside.

What I saw inside made my heart flutter! It was an old 1950′s Kodak Pony camera, identical to one that I had owned as a boy.

 Vision First, Skills Second 

I went over to the three women and asked “who should I make an offer to?” and the two pointed to the one in the middle. I had no idea how much the camera was worth, but I wanted it and so I said “will you take $20?” 

Call 911! I thought the woman was going to have a heart attack right then and there, it was clear that she would’ve taken much less for it. But the truth is I would’ve paid a lot more because it brought back a particular childhood memory:

I was 14 years old and I had purchased a used camera just like this from Casey’s camera in Rochester, New York. I quickly put it to use on a still life that I had assembled on my mothers prized dining room table, using two eggs and a goblet.

1968 Egg in Glass Vision First, Skills Second 

I knew what I wanted the image to look like, but there was a problem because the camera wouldn’t focus close enough. So I disassembled the lens and removed the focusing stop so that the camera would now focus very close, but how would I focus it?  It was never intended to focus like this and so I took a piece of ground glass, put it on the film plane and manually focused it like a view camera. I then loaded the film back into the camera and created this image. 

I jokingly tell people that “Egg in Glass” was my first fine art image, and as I have reflected on this experience from some 45 years ago, I’ve come to appreciate what this image represents to me.

It is important because I had exhibited a simple Vision and then sought the technical skills I needed to pull it off. As I look back on my photographic life, that’s how a great many of my images have come about: I had the Vision first and then developed the second.

Let me give another example:

2004 11 1 Skeleton Final 4 24 2009 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

This is “Skeleton” and this is exactly how I found these bones.

Well, not exactly, here’s how the camera saw the scene:

2004 11 1 Skeleton BEFORE WEB 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

When I stood over those bones that autumn day, I didn’t see the image the way my camera saw it, but rather the way that my Vision saw it.  I knew exactly how I wanted this image to look: I wanted those bones to really stand out against dark leaves.

But the problem was that I didn’t know how I was going to do this, I had just converted to digital and I didn’t know how to use PhotoShop. So I just jumped in and starting trying things, and in the process I learned how to dodge and burn with a tablet. The Vision came first and the skills were developed as needed.

Here’s another image where I had to develop the skills on the run:

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior Final 2 27 2006 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

This is “Old Car Interior.”  When I stuck my head in the back window of that car and looked at that wonderful old dash, I knew how I wanted it to look.  But again I was faced with a technical challenge that I had no experience with: the interior was very dark and flat while the exterior was very bright and contrasty.

The dynamic range in this image would have been a challenge with film, but it was impossible with digital. I didn’t know how to go about fixing this and so I just tried something.

Here’s the original shot:

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior BEFORE small Vision First, Skills Second

I exposed one image for the interior and one for the exterior.  I then processed each one separately, cut out the window from the exterior shot and pasted it into the interior image.

Might there be better ways to have created this image?  Probably, but all I care about is that it worked and I was able to create the image that I had imagined.

A final example:

Windmill in Moonlight AFTER Vision First, Skills Second

This is “Windmill in Moonlight” and this is how everyone knows this image.

But this is how the camera recorded this night scene:

Windmill in Moonlight BEFORE Vision First, Skills Second

When I saw this scene on that cold winter night in Nebraska, I was inspired and excited with its potential! But when I saw the RAW image, I had doubts that I could manipulate it to match my Vision. I made several attempts and failed,  but I didn’t give up because I so believed that this could be a great image.

I know that my philosophy of “Vision first, skills second” runs contrary to common wisdom. There are many who believe that skills must come before the vision can be executed.

I respectfully disagree.  Everything in my photographic life (both the good and the bad) has reinforced my belief in Vision first.

When skills comes first, then images are limited by what you can do. But when Vision  comes first, then you are only limited by your imagination and determination.


P.S. I researched the price on that Pony 828 camera and you can buy them all day long on eBay for $10. That old lady got a great deal…but so did I!

Apr 4 2014

The Story Behind the Image – Iceland No. 30

2013 9 7 Iceland No 30 Final 10 12 2013 1000 1 The Story Behind the Image   Iceland No. 30Iceland No. 30


Why did I include this image in my Iceland portfolio, when I consider it just “average” at best?  Because it reminds me of the story behind the image.

It was in September of 2013 that I spend two weeks driving around Iceland and it was heaven: I was alone, I had no itinerary, no reservations and no plans other than to go wherever my eye took me. 

I don’t like to embark on a trip with plans and so the only two things that I put on my “to do” list was to soak in the Blue Lagoon hot pools and to photograph the icebergs.  I did have a wonderful soak, but the image above was the only one I was able to create of the icebergs, and here’s why:

The weather for most of my trip had been pretty good but on the second half it started to get windy.  Living near Wyoming I’m accustomed to strong winds, we often have gusts of 60 mph and sometimes as high as 80 mph. But what I encountered this day in Iceland made those Wyoming winds seem like a mild breeze.

I had driven around the island clockwise and things started getting windy in the east.  Then as I approached the south, things really got serious.  On the day that I visited Iceberg Lagoon, the winds were so strong that I could barely get out of the car or stand up. I saw people standing at a 45 degree angle as they braced into the wind.

I walked around a portion of the lagoon and tried to photograph, but I literally could not hold the camera still enough. I found a location where a hill blocked some of the wind and by using my tripod very low to the ground and putting my full weight on it, I was able to create Iceland No. 30 above, the only image I got of the icebergs. This was pretty disappointing given that I had come all the way to Iceland to photograph icebergs.  

Shortly after leaving the lagoon and continuing west, I started to see an enormous dust cloud coming off of the alluvial gravel fields. These dust clouds were very dark because they were made up of volcanic rock that had been ground by the glaciers over the centuries. It was an odd sight; this low lying ominous dust cloud against a blue sky.

I had just passed the Hotel Skaftafell and decided that I should turn around and not proceed into the dust cloud. I pulled into the hotel parking lot but was immediately stopped by a security guard who said that the hotel was fully booked. It turns out that Matt Damon was filming a movie and he and the film crew occupied the entire hotel. So I’m blaming Matt for what occurred next.

Since I couldn’t stay the only decision to be made was which direction to go: east from where I came or west towards my final destination? I didn’t want to go east because I’d be losing ground and the last hotels I had seen were quite a ways back. So I proceeded west…reluctantly…into the storm.

I approached a bridge with this enormous dust cloud pouring over it and I was having some serious second thoughts about my decision. The bridge demanded an immediate decision from me because once I was on the bridge…there was no turning back. The bridges over these alluvial fields could be very long and they were so narrow as to prevent turnaround.

My indecision became a de facto decision as I started onto the bridge and was immediately met by an oncoming car. My heart half stopped at what I saw: the car’s windows were all blown out on the wind side. I immediately feared that I had made the wrong decision.

Now that I was on the bridge and committed, I could only proceed and hope for the best. What I didn’t know at that moment, was how strong the winds had become. I later learned that this “storm of the century” had gusts up to 134 mph.

The visibility was so poor that I could only drive about 10 mph and the only thing that kept me on the road was the center stripe. Soon the sound of dust blasting the car became the sound of small rocks pelting it. The wind had become so strong that it hurled sharp volcanic rocks into the air, pummeling everything in its path. Well, my car was in its path and suddenly and without warning, the four windows on the windside of the car simultaneously exploded and I was covered with broken glass. 

The rocks that had been smashing against my windows were now smashing against my face as I tried to drive. The wind pressure was so great that my ears hurt and I had to roll down the windows on the leeward side of the car, which relieved the pressure but also allowed the rocks to fly through the car with even greater force.

Fortunately I was wearing a hooded jacket and I used this to shield the right side of my face. This was a very abrasive situation, but how abrasive, I would not appreciate until later.

I had to keep driving because I had no alternative, but I didn’t know when or where I would find refuge.  The car was rocking so badly in the wind that I wondered if it would be blown over, and whenever I crossed over a bridge it became so violent that I would bring the car to a stop until the wind subsided a bit.

I drove like this for hours, crawling along slowly and clinging to the white stripe on the road.  At one point the stripe disappeared because an inch layer of the road surface was actually being blown away, peeling in the wind like an onion. This was unnerving and without the stripe, I was blind for a distance.

Along the way I encountered other drivers coming from the opposite direction and heading into the danger zone that I had just come out of.  I would stop and warn them by yelling and using sign language, indicating that they should turn around. Seven cars listened to me and we drove together in a caravan, however one car would not listen and proceeded anyway.

Another car initially ignored my advice and seemed determined to proceed. It was a young couple with a small child in the back seat and on the windward side. Seeing that child and imagining what would happen if they lost their windows really scared me and caused me to become loud and forceful, commanding them to turn around.  Which they did.

We caravaned for several hours and finally came across the Fosshotel Nupar. There were rooms available but the hotel was quickly filling as it became a refuge for the travellers in the area.  Soon the hotel was full and they had to put people in the lobby and other available areas. The scene there was unworldly, the wind was so fierce that people could hardly make it from their cars and into the hotel.  We all huddled together at the windows, watching the cars in the parking lot as their windows exploded, one by one.

We made it through the night and didn’t lose any hotel windows, but the cars were not so lucky. In the morning I surveyed the damage to my car and thankfully I had not lost any more windows, but the remaining ones were sandblasted along with the car’s paint, headlights and wheels. The car was a mess outside and inside it was full of broken glass, sand and small stones. 

The winds were still fierce, but much less than the day before and so I decided to drive straight to Reykjavik to get another car. I taped trash bags over the windows and got on my way. The trip was uncomfortable, cold and the bags were soon ripped off the windows by the wind, but I continued on because I desperately wanted a warm car with windows! Along the way I encountered several mild sand storms…but nothing like the day before.

Upon arriving in Reykjavik, the car and I were something of a celebrity.  The rental people said that they had never seen a car destroyed by the winds like this and asked how I was going to pay for it. I told them that I had State Farm insurance, to which they replied “not here you don’t!” I had assumed that I was covered by my car policy and so I never purchased the additional insurance. I learned an important lesson that day.

I paid for the damages using my Visa card (at least I got some frequent flyer miles) so that they would give me another car. But to my surprise Citibank ended up covering the damages since I had used their credit card to rent the car and had declined the supplemental insurance, thank you Citibank!

Armed with a new rental car and better weather, I was able to finish my Iceland journey without further incident. This was the the trip of a lifetime, regardless of the images I did or did not bring home.

Was this part of the trip a terrible experience? There were probably moments that I thought so at the time, but I now fondly look back at this as an adventure that I’ll always remember.

And that is the story behind the image.


P.S. Here’s a photo of the car.

2013 9 15 Two Missing Side Windows on Passenger Side The Story Behind the Image   Iceland No. 30



Mar 27 2014

“Why Black and White?” Presentation in Denver on April 10th

2013 10 19 Monolith No 68 Final 11 27 2013 1000 Why Black and White?  Presentation in Denver on April 10thMonolith No. 68


I’ll be delivering my presentation “Why Black and White?” in Denver on April 10th, 2014.

The Focus Camera Club has graciously invited me and I never say no to an invitation (well, almost never).

I will attempt to entertain, educate, provoke and convert all color photographers present…so come with a an open mind and a thick skin!

There will also be a free drawing for three of my images:

Three Images Why Black and White?  Presentation in Denver on April 10th

Here’s the time and location information:


If you’re in the area, I hope to see you.


Mar 8 2014

Newsletter Available

2014 2 1 Dunes of Nude 85 Final 2 26 2014 1000 Newsletter AvailableDunes of Nude No. 85


My latest newsletter is out with new images from Death Valley, Trona Pinnacles, the Alabama Hills and Manzanar.

If you are not signed up for the newsletter, you can do so here:  




Mar 6 2014

The Art of Grain Silos

2007 11 26 Silo Detail No 51 Final 11 26 2007 750 The Art of Grain SilosGrain Silo Detail No. 51


Lenswork Daily featured a 3 minute audio excerpt from my interview with Brook Jensen regarding this image.


Mar 1 2014

Watermarks Drive Me Crazy!

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior Final 2 27 2006 750 Watermarks Drive Me Crazy!

I don’t wish to offend anyone, but watermarks drive me crazy!

I find them distracting and it ruins the viewing experience for me.  I’m not sure which is more offensive, the transparent ones that go completely across the image or the bright white ones in the corner of the image.

Imagine if you printed your work with the watermark, how do you think it would affect the viewing experience?  Not well, and now that most viewing of images takes place online, you are ruining a lot of viewing experiences!

Presumably it’s done to stop people from stealing your image, but I’ve never personally had a problem with this.  What would they do with it, it’s low resolution and not suitable for printing.  Or do I think they will use my image and claim that it’s theirs?  I’ve never seen that happen, to anyone.

I think the worst thing that is likely to happen is that someone could use my image without giving me credit for it, but even if that occasionally occurs, no harm is done. I once found an online auto parts store using my “Old Car Interior” image above, I love free exposure and so I simply wrote and asked them to give me credit for the image.

Now, let me turn this personal rant into something useful. How can you know if someone is using one of your images?  There is a very simple method using the Google search function. Using a technology similar to facial recognition, you can upload an image and have Google tell you everywhere that it’s posted. It’s very cool!

Here’s how you do it using Chrome (and I assume it’s the same with other browsers):

  1. Go to google.com and it will display a search window
  2. Choose “Images” in the top right corner 
  3. Now, instead of typing something into the search window, click on the little camera over on the right side of the search window.
  4. Paste or upload the photo that you want to search for (you can use mine above)
  5. Click on the search logo and see everywhere this image appears.

If you’re concerned about people stealing your images, this is an easy way to confirm if it’s a problem or not.  But I’m guessing it’s not.

Now back to my rant: watermarks are distracting and unnecessary…don’t do it!

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior WITH WATERMARK 750 Watermarks Drive Me Crazy!



Feb 25 2014

Words Are Very Unnecessary, They Can Only Do Harm

2014 2 1 Ancient Stones No 23 Words Are Very Unnecessary, They Can Only Do HarmAncient Stones No. 23 – Alabama Hills – 2014


In the beginning was the scene, and the scene was good.

But not everyone could see the scene, and so man invented photography so that all could enjoy the beauty.

And then other men invented the art expert.  The experts did not think it was enough to simply see the beauty of the scene, they needed to describe the scene and tell us what it meant.

And that was not good.

~     ~     ~

We like to say that a picture is worth 1000 words. So why do some feel the need to describe an image with a few paltry words?

People ask me “what are you saying with your image?” and I respond: “look at it, what is it saying to you?”

The words from Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” echo in my head:

All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms
Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm

Enjoy the image, enjoy the silence.  



Feb 19 2014

The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.

2014 2 1 Harbinger No 16c The so called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.Harbinger No. 16 – 2014


Ansel Adams said: “The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.”

And I’ll go one step further and say that in my opinion these rules are actually harmful because they get in the way of developing creativity and Vision.

For years I’ve rebelled against the rules of photography. Why? Because my experience has taught me that they encourage dependency and discourage independent seeing.

I’ve had people criticize my images because they didn’t follow some imaginary rule of composition and I thought: how sad that when they look at this beautiful image, all they can see are the rules. That’s called not being able to see the forest for the trees.

The rules of composition is an attempt to distill the creative process into a series of simple guidelines that if followed, will produce a good image. It reminds me of the old “paint by numbers” painting kit: simply put the proper color into each numbered area, stay within the lines and you’ll have a “real” painting! Yes, but it’s not a very good painting and it’s certainly not an original.

Mona Lisa Paint by Numbers Comparison The so called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.

Do you remember IBM’s Deep Blue computer?  It was programmed to play chess and it beat the world champion chess player, Garry Kasparov.  Do you think that if we were to program the rules of photography into Deep Blue and take it to Yosemite, that it could beat Ansel Adams?

Of course not, because composition is about seeing and feeling, not about following rules. And the irony of these rules is that they are supposed to help you learn to be creative, when what they actually do is cause dependency.

I love travelling with a GPS because I can plug in an address and it gives me turn-by-turn directions. But I’ve noticed that there’s a negative side effect that comes from relying on my GPS: I’ve become so dependent upon it that I cannot find anything without it, even in cities that I frequently travel. The GPS has made me so myopic that I’ve never developed the big picture of the city.

That’s what I believe happens when you rely on the rules of composition: you become myopic and dependent. You don’t develop the big picture, you don’t see for yourself, you don’t trust your own feelings.

“So Cole, if I shouldn’t follow the rules, how do propose that I learn to compose an image?”

I like the Professor Harold Hill approach, do you remember him? He was the likeable charlatan from The Music Man who rode into River City, Iowa selling band instruments. He taught the boys in town how to play their instruments using the Think System, that’s where you “think the notes and just play the notes.” It sounds silly, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this approach!

When I approach a scene, I simply look and see and feel.  I compose instinctively until the scene feels right, without a single thought about the “rules.”  And if the composition doesn’t feel right, I change it.  I move the camera, I zoom in, I try another angle…but in the end all I care about is that it “feels right.”  Does that sound as silly as Professor Hill’s Think System?

And after I’ve created the image, I don’t ask others what they think and I don’t listen to the “experts” who will tell me how I should have done it. I trust my instincts and remember that I’m learning to express my vision and not theirs. Learning to trust your instincts is one of the first steps in the creative process.

What a simple and empowering concept: to see and feel for yourself rather than following the rules. Creative people already know this secret: that great art comes from within and is not found in a set of rules.

Start by believing in yourself and your own inherent creativity.  Then forget about the rules. Next comes practice, practice, practice and evaluating each image by asking yourself: “what could I have done differently to make this image better?” And most importantly, rely on your own opinion and don’t ask others what they think of your images.

This approach is not an easy shortcut, it’s a long and hard process in which you’ll create thousands of failures. But with each failure you’ll get better and most importantly, you’ll be creating originals and not “paint by number” counterfeits!


P.S.  Here’s a test question: I have friends who ask me “how will I know if I have a good image if I don’t ask other people’s opinion of it?” How would you answer this?